By JAPHET ALAKAM- DRAMA
As part of efforts aimed at simplifying the texts of literature books for secondary school students, the National Troupe of Nigeria dramatised Othello, a drama written by William Shakespeare in Umuahia, Abia State penultimate week to bring nearer home the import of the book and more .
It is not just that Othello, one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays is a story of love, race, jealousy, hate and betrayal, it is also one book that exposes the inadequacies of an army general, a Moor, who incidentally found himself in the city of Venice. What is more striking about the play which is in the West African Examination Council’s (WAEC) syllabus for 2016 to 2020 is that the National Troupe of Nigeria has chosen to dramatise the play for secondary school students throughout the nation.
The Abia project was done in collaboration with Agwu Nsi players, a private theatre troupe in the state.
The troupe is led by Dan Nwokoji-Aku who also directed the play narrates how Othello came into Venice as a little boy, fought his way into the big league and saved the city from falling into the hands of their detractors, yet he was never accepted as a normal human being. It is a story of race, love, jealousy, a timeless story meant to expose the world to the follies of hate.
In opening the play, the actors started with well-known moonlight stories and choruses. This helped to bring the children into the reality of the moment. As they sang, the audience, made up of secondary school students from in and around Umuahia, also joined in the songs, nodding their heads and expecting to have the fun of their lives. The actors first danced round the stage, clapping their hands as they formed a ring. There was a big table in the middle of the stage which made it look as if they were about to embark on a village meeting. They clapped on, dancing slowly and majestically to the beautiful euphoria that was to emerge. In the meantime, the appetite of the crowd had been thoroughly assuaged. The expectations were quite high as the choruses of Kpakpan-gonlo filled the air.
Led by the Abia State director of culture, R. E. Okoji who played Brabantio, the senator and father of Desdemona, the stage opened with unbridled frenzy. With such a big artiste on stage, it became clear that both the play and the idea behind the project called for serious attention and concentration. Decked in a flowing white overall, Okoji bestrode the stage like a senator who had been bestowed with authority. His carriage proved to the audience that those who featured in Othello were people of high calibre. Together, all the characters exposed the inner workings of Venice and Cyprus in the 16th century Europe.
Othello, a Moor, was a great general in the Venetian army. A black man probably from Egypt or Ethiopia, he had found himself in that environment early in life. Through his own personal efforts and dexterity, he rose to be an army general, feared by all and only respected by few.
The scene opened with the purported elopement of Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of Senator Brabantio with General Othello. Wrongly accused by his foes and detractors, the play opened up lots of plots and intrigues on hate and racism. But it all began with the new appointment made by Othello. In it, he made Michael Cassio instead of Lago his lieutenant. Even though Cassio was more experienced in the art of war and gallantry, Lago immediately took offence. From that moment on, he began to plot the downfall of Othello. This was not made known to the general whose primary pre-occupation was war, more wars and more conquests.
Having found himself in this uncouth position, where everything he worked for, had collapsed on his head, Othello committed suicide. It was the questions asked by the students that helped to elucidate some of the scenes in the play. One of them was how Desdemona and Othello met and became lovers. It was explained that the position of the Senator and that of Othello as a general made it possible for them to meet from time to time for the good of Venice. It was those occasional moments that afforded the two lovers the opportunity to meet. Also, Othello used to visit the noble senator to intimate him of his military exploits and this endeared them to one another. Yet, the people of Venice did not want this black general, a Moor, to marry Desdemona, a white lady from a noble background.
Therefore this is a story of a powerful city of trade and commerce where big people from all corners of the world converged to play their roles.
Earlier, Mr. Akinsola Adejuwon, the Artistic Director of the Troupe said that the whole essence of this project is to ensure that the play is made easier for the children to understand. It is also to help reinvigorate interest in literature. As it is now, most students do not have the desired appetite to do or offer literature in WAEC anymore. For these reasons and more the Troupe has begun to embark on the stage performances of those plays in the syllabus that otherwise pose serious challenge to the children.
And since most of the Shakespearean works are done in Elizabethan English, by taking the works to the stage in the normal everyday English, it will certainly help to situate the story. When the play was staged at the Bishop Nwedo Pastoral Centre, Umuahia, Abia State, penultimate week, it was to encourage the students to see how the plot, the theme, the characters and the moral messages in the play relate to their immediate environment. It was to draw their attention to the innate values of stage plays, set in Venice in the 16th century but which is still relevant in the contemporary Nigerian setting.
Adejuwon said it is to expose the children into the nuances of literature on time. “It is a project we are taking round the country. It is the turn of the South-East now,” he said.
In the end certificates were awarded to the schools and to the artistes who participated in the play.