Think Theatre, a production company which stages set-works (including prescribed Shakespeare plays) for South African school students has, over the last few months, upheld its firmly established reputation, taking on the monumental task of performing Hamlet and Othello to thousands of learners all over the country. Last week, two new members of the Shakespeare ZA team, Marguerite de Waal and Kirsten Dey, attended the last performance of the company’s highly-acclaimed production of Othello at the Brooklyn Theatre in Pretoria.
As students, amateur scholars and teachers of Shakespeare in South Africa, we have found ourselves in a contentious field of study and interest. Considering the stir caused by the latest controversy as to Shakespeare’s place on the curriculum at South African high schools, we were enthusiastic and somewhat apprehensive upon venturing out of the University grounds on a week day at noon to see Think Theatre’s production of Othello – looking forward to engaging with Shakespeare performed as opposed to read, but apprehensive about the way the rest of the audience would respond to the play. Would their perception of the bard be tainted before they had had a chance to experience his work performed?
As we arrived at Brooklyn theatre and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of high school students, we realised that we, along with the bustling, bubbling group, found ourselves excited at the prospect of escaping our various personal realities. Once we were escorted to the back of the theatre and took our seats, the lights dimmed, narrowing to a single spotlight on the director of Think Theatre’s Othello and Hamlet, Claire Mortimer. She addressed the students (us included – one is always a student of Shakespeare’s!) with sass and grace, welcoming us to her home – the theatre – and told us that we were about to engage with the work of the master of the human condition, encouraging us to receive the play in that light. Her introduction framed the experience of watching the play not as an escape from reality, but rather as a journey into its depths. One is confronted with the ultimate, charismatic, psychopathic villain in Iago; the weak and dupe-able minion in Roderigo; the naïve and earnest beloved in Desdemona; the intensely human, idealistic, flawed hero in Othello. And thus, one is reminded of the various faces of human character and the ways in which it responds to its varying contexts.
Mortimer was already in the costume she would wear as Emilia, identified herself as an actor in the play and engaged with the audience in a way that was personal, which further dispelled the illusion that what would appear before us was a world and reality unlike and apart from our own. Thus, as the lights refocused on the confabulating Iago and Roderigo in the first scene of the play, we were left to perceive them not as isolated entities but as representations of aspects of our own character.
This post is designed as more of a reflection on the production than a review of it. To this end, we have each identified three factors of the performance which we felt were particularly effective or interesting within the context of a Shakespearean play staged for South African learners:
Ø The actors’ awareness of and responsiveness to their audience was commendable. As I chatted to Claire Mortimer after the show, she enthused about the reactions of the students, drawing the connection between the ‘groundlings’ of Shakespeare’s day and the clear involvement of the students in the play as it is performed to them in 2017. The kind of cold-blooded reverence sometimes expected of audiences (as evidence of their right to such high-brow pursuits as playgoing) would only serve to entrench a view of Shakespeare and Shakespearean theatre as a distant, elitist, and monolithic institution. The Think Theatre team avoided any such error: the actors in this were able to read and respond to the reactions of their audience, and the audience was given space to respond to the actors.
Ø A good example of this positive actor-audience dynamic which deserves a special mention is the character of Iago, portrayed by Chris van Rensburg. Iago’s numerous monologues verge on dialogues with the audience: spectators are given fairly direct access to his scheming thoughts, and are almost always aware of how he will steer the plot onwards. Van Rensburg uses this opportunity to elicit reactions from the audience, in a skilful performance which seems to understand that the more the audience can be brought to react to the character, the greater their emotional investment will be in the final outcome for him and the victims of his villainous machinations. Iago is a demanding role, and Van Rensburg manages to make the character as fascinating as he is detestable: one student went so far as to run to the foot of the stage to applaud him as the actors took a bow at the end.
Ø Lastly, I think the treatment of the text, especially in terms of pacing, was done well. It is quite possible for a production of a Shakespeare play to run for three hours or longer: too long for an average spectator (never mind a distractible school student) to remain focused. Think Theatre’s Othello managed to make any shortening of the play quite unnoticeable and keep the running time to less than two and a half hours, all while maintaining a steady pace which kept the performance moving forward without losing essential depth or detail. The production therefore encapsulated the elements of the play necessary to a matriculant’s study of it, and it did so without compromising on an engaged, high-quality performance.
Ø Cara Roberts is a fascinatingly human Desdemona alongside the engaging Nhlakanipho Manqele as Othello. I can imagine that it would be difficult to portray Desdemona, a character who is viewed as a spiritual envoy and metonymically comes to represent perfection itself when she is simply a young woman, perhaps still a girl, who is naïve, headstrong and who certainly experiences desire. As such, Desdemonas may be inclined to teeter on the edge of angelic melodrama. Roberts, however, has the fraught, captivating energy necessary to make the character human and believable. This could be one of the reasons the audience reacted to her with such vigorous applause: they could identify with her. Similarly, Manqele is also able to avoid the temptation of portraying Othello as a one-sided, demonic counterpart to Desdemona’s potentially beatific character. Rather, Manqele ensures that Othello is relatable and human in his anguish – thus enabling the audience to retain sympathy for him as a complex character, which is essential in provoking the necessary cathartic response to his violent, jealous madness.
Ø The set is simple, the stage fairly bare, and little is made of references which might contextualise the play, heightening the sense that the narrative of Othello could take place in any milieu. Furthermore, the actors do not foreground Shakespeare’s English in a way that distances the audience from the characters but rather engage with the dialogue in a naturalistic manner. Hence, the production appears to be focused on the timelessness of the narrative, which is important when most of the members of a South African student audience are approaching the play as second language speakers, which is certainly a significant barrier. As such, it is important to portray the play as a text which while requiring effort is, in essence, accessible.
Ø The final aspect of Think Theatre’s Othello to which I want to draw attention is the reaction of the audience to the production. About half way through Othello, I realised that I was watching two performances: that of the actors on the stage before me and that of the students engaging with the play. I came to be as fascinated by the one as I was by the other – perhaps because I am no longer just a student myself, but a teacher too. I like to know what makes the minds with which I work tick. Students from various schools, various backgrounds, were on the edge of their seats, clicking their tongues at the devious Iago, gasping in horror at Othello’s self-destruction, cringing at Desdemona’s naïve pursuit of Cassio’s defence in the face of Othello’s increasing suspicion, and quietly covering their mouths as Othello strangled Desdemona in their bed. And when the actors emerged from the wings to bow for the audience, they were met by an uproar of applause, indicating, perhaps, that the relevance of a playwright who has been perceived as outdated, colonial and abstruse may lie in the fact that his work is fundamentally relatable in its attempts to explore, understand and problematise what it means to be human.
After the show, the students from each school headed back to their respective buses in the wintry afternoon sunlight. Many had travelled quite a way to get there, and it was time for the long journey back. We sat down in the now-empty theatre restaurant to reflect on the show over a cup of coffee with Mortimer and her colleague, Margie Coppen – the company’s publicist and booking agent.
As we discussed the logistics of a travelling production such as theirs, the size and scale of their undertaking became increasingly evident. When staged at set venues in Gauteng, for example, both Othello and Hamlet were performed every weekday. In KwaZulu-Natal, the plays were performed in a variety of venues, to a total of more than 22 000 students. The tour is wide-reaching, and wildly differing staging spaces and access to resources come with the territory. The entire crew’s adaptability to their varying environments attests to their practised skill as well as their determination to reach as many learners from as many backgrounds as possible.
This determination seems to be driven by a deep understanding of the necessity of experiencing the plays in performance, especially for students studying Shakespeare’s texts at a high school level in a context where performances (and experiences) of Shakespeare outside of schools are highly localised. Performance is essential to the understanding of dramatic form. Plays can be studied and enjoyed through reading, certainly, but without an awareness of the purpose and character of different forms of literary expression, too much of the richness of a text might be lost. This poses a massive challenge in the South African context: if dramatic texts such as (but not limited to) Shakespeare’s are to be studied effectively, then students must have access not only to static knowledge about such texts, but also to experiences of them as artworks designed for interpretation and immediacy through performance.
Reflecting on Think Theatre’s achievements, two things become clear. Firstly, there are talented, passionate theatre-makers who are able to respond to an essential need in the education of South African learners. Secondly, this need has not been met fully yet: much more support is needed for projects such as Think Theatre, which provide professional, consistent, and mobile productions of plays for school students.