Ok, it wasn’t as bad as hell, but I thought that was a clever title. I couldn’t persuade Big Friendly (or force or beg him) to join me last night for the opening of UCT Drama department’s production of Othello at The Baxter. I met G there and he was my date. So, there was a who’s who and a huge gathering which was rather impressive, although I struggled to find a programme and the woman handing out tickets was so rude when I asked her for one. I digress.
The blue slatted set and its levels are striking as you walk in to the theatre. Director Geoffrey Hyland is brilliant at styling, visuals and music. And then the play starts. And it is unfortunate that the first half is the one filled with the small parts, because it is unrelenting in its studentness. We were three rows from the front and I could see the lake and brown shading used on Christo Lombard‘s cheeks to age him enough to play Brabantio, Desdemona‘s father. Jodi Balfour did a rather good cameo of the Duke of Venice in a first half that was long and bleak and filled with very am-dram performances. If I had been with Big Friendly I fear we may have left none the wiser at this point.
The second half was so much better it was like a different play. It helped that it was mainly the time for Othello, played superbly by Vaneshran Arumugam, a professional and very talented actor who is back at UCT doing his master’s degree, and Desdemona, performed sensitively and powerfully by Ariella Caira. I was really moved during the famous bedroom murder scene, which was beautiful and unrelenting and very sad. Vaneshran’s depth and range as a good classical performer really come to the fore here. His portrayal of Othello‘s journey is subtle, convincing and very real. And he handles the language really well for the most part. He is leagues ahead of most of his student co-players and this throws out the balance somewhat. At least he is matched by Ariella‘s performance of Desdemona. She is good, very good, and truthful and strong and solid.
I think my biggest disappointment was Iago. The character of Iago is Shakespeare’s purest and most outright villain. He is inspired by pure jealousy and ambition and is ruthless, calculating and savage in its execution. He is in turns charming, wheedling, ugly, brutal, vicious and cunning. Charlie Keegan is definitely a very talented young man. But here he just has to work too hard on a part that needs age, experience and a certain inherent power to be convincing. What we get instead is a manic, over the top, and slightly crazed performance complete with huge facial distortions, snorting, weird neck twists and demented eyes and eyebrows. I thought of a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer.
Albert Pretorius tried hard as Cassio and he had some sweet moments in an otherwise unconvincing puppet like performance of ‘the tool’ for Iago. But Bianca and her belly dancing friends were just plain hideous. Student extras.
Having come straight from my own Maynardville experience with The Merchant of Venice I was also a little disappointed in how most of the cast (with the exception of Vaneshran and Ariella) handled the verse and the text.
Othello is this year’s school set work and all the schools will get a pretty good idea of what is going on with the story and its themes. I guess that is what is important here. I was left wondering why this production is being staged at The Baxter though. There is no doubt that it is a student production; beautifully styled, well costumed by Ilke Louw and Leila Anderson and well polished by Geoffrey Hyland, but a student production none the less. And you can tell.