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Photograph of the billboard advertising an adaptation of Shakespeare\'s \"Othello\" at the Baxter Theatre on the 4th of May 2024, directed by Lara Foot.
Photograph of the billboard advertising an adaptation of Shakespeare\'s \"Othello\" at the Baxter Theatre on the 4th of May 2024, directed by Lara Foot.
Original photo by Aman Adams
Culture > Entertainment

Othello at the Baxter: Africanising Shakespeare

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Between 6 April – 4 May 2024, Lara Foot’s spellbinding adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello graced the Baxter stage. As the plot is over 400 years old, I certainly hope you didn’t come here to avoid spoilers!

The Plot

In summary, the play tells the story of Othello, a North-African (Moor) general in the Venetian army. Othello (Atandwa Kani) marries the fair Desdemona (Carla Smith), daughter of respected Senator Brabantio (Morne Visser). Othello’s third-ranking officer, Iago (Albert Pretorius), is enraged upon hearing this – why should a Black man gain a higher position than him? Fuming, he and Roderigo (Wessel Pretorius) – a former suitor of Desdemona – hatch a plot to destroy Othello by convincing him that his dear wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with another high-ranking officer – Michael Cassio (Carlo Daniels). The play explores themes of faith, betrayal and the dangers of jealousy and miscommunication. This eventually leads to Desdemona’s death and, in typical Shakespearean fashion, Othello taking his own life. 

What Makes Lara Foot’s Adaptation Different? 

Granted, this is the first time I had ever seen a live performance of Othello. My own experience of Shakespeare is limited to Romeo and Juliet in Grade 9 and Hamlet in Grade 12. I saw a live performance of the latter at the Artscape in 2018. At university, I had just barely touched on The Tempest and an adaptation of Merchant of Venice called Merchant of Vembley. Othello remained a stranger to me, a blurry outline of that one mildly “progressive” Shakespeare play. Despite not being particularly familiar with the source material, I found myself enthralled for the entire 2 ½ hour show.

Most adaptations of Othello are set in Venice with the Venetian army battling a Turkish invasion. Foot’s interpretation is set in the context of the Scramble for Africa in 1884. Her reasoning lies in a decolonial lens, bringing the sentiments of Franz Fanon to life. The “Duke” was replaced with German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck (Brendon Sean Murray). He gathers with his subordinates like Montano (Lyle October) to decide how to slice up Africa in colonial conquest. The costuming explicitly referenced Victorian-era dress codes, with men in navy-blue coats and women in high-collared, mutton-chop dresses. 

As for lighting and set design, Patrick Curtis and Gerhard Marx delight and disturb with an eerie portrayal of the German colonisation of South-West Africa (modern Namibia). Actors dance and stride across maps of Africa, which are interwoven with human skulls; an overt reference to the genocide of the indigenous Herero and Nama people. Blustering desert wind fills the stage, while unsettling boulders float in the air paradoxically. Cassio and other soldiers drink, dance, and pontificate on piles of bloodied clothes. A feeling of unease is created in the theatre, amplified by Kyle Shepherd’s foreboding score and stellar performances from Kani, Smith, Daniels and Albert Pretorius.

Language and Decolonisation

We owe many of the phrases we use today to Shakespeare. Othello has one of the very first personifications of jealousy as the “green-eyed monster”. Iago wears his “heart on his sleeve”. Othello and Desdemona create the “beast with two backs.” 

As a first-time viewer, I was fascinated to see how certain phrases were used as far back as 400 years ago. A line that truly struck home with me was one from Desdemona’s nurse Emilia (Faniswa Yisa), who declares: “I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip” (Act 4, Scene 3). I was shocked that a 400-year-old play was able to acknowledge the State of Palestine when most governments could not do that TODAY. That, I believe, is the beauty of Shakespeare – its undeniable timelessness even within a different content. This seems to be especially the case with Othello – but has it always been a decolonial project? 

Other adaptations of Shakespeare certainly share the common trait of Othello as an outsider (and victim of racism) who is always doomed to be looked down upon in the eyes of Brabantio and the Duke. However, Foot’s interpretation goes further than this. Some lines in the play are performed in German, Afrikaans and isiXhosa. Lecturer of African Languages at UCT, Sanele Ntshingana, provided the isiXhosa translation. Some parts were directly translated from Elizabethan English, others had to be tweaked within context. According to African Languages Honours Student, Luthando Tetani, this required a great deal of knowledge – both of the source material and of Xhosa culture. These translations ran alongside the original lines, interjecting the piece with a reminder of home. 

Multilinguality invites South African audiences into the foreign world of Shakespeare, coaxing them in with the offer of familiarity amongst distant words. By the end of the last act, the viewer leaves feeling pensive and provoked, eager to assess the injustices in their own lives. 

Decoloniality certainly seems to be en vogue at the moment, ranging from popular culture to bigger institutions and legislations. While oversaturated in many forms of media, it is not without reason. Decolonial (especially African) adaptations of Shakespeare offer viewers and actors the opportunity to reinvent what has already been done in a refreshing and topical context for more diverse audiences. 

Though Othello is no longer running, I still urge you to support your local theatres! Interesting shows at the Baxter running in May-June 2024 include King of Broken Things, Camagu (Be Honoured) and Dog Rose. Make this your thespian era!

Hi there! My name is Aman and I am currently completing my Honours in Media Theory & Practice at UCT. I have also completed a BA in English, History and Media Studies (2023) and a Post-graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) (2024), also at UCT. My interests lie in popular culture, gender studies, feminist theory and good old fashioned memes. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, writing and making watercolour paintings. I have one son (read: cat) named Houdini, a ginger tabby who makes it all worth it. For professional enquiries contact aman.adams1234@gmail.com