When Othello and Macbeth didn’t get along

Ambition alone was not enough to help Hammad Sartaj’s theatrical experiment spin magic

Rafay Mahmood November 25, 2015
The intent to move beyond a typical rendition was evident in some very brave choices made by the director. PHOTO: PUBLICITY


Astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan once said, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” This saying holds true for director Hamad Sartaj’s conviction to merge two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies – Macbeth and Othello – however, the end result does not push you to the edge of the seat.

Here Lies a Noble Man is an ‘amalgamation’ of Macbeth and Othello presented in Urdu during the Napa Young Directors Theatre Festival. It showcases a summarised version of the two plays in parallel narratives; in this case quite literally, meaning two lines that don’t come together till infinity.

A thin white line divides the audience sitting on stage from the performance area, as actors mysteriously crawl out of the curtains wearing cloaks essaying the famous witches from Macbeth. In comes Macbeth (Mesam Naqvi), accompanied by fellow warrior Banquo and the witches prophesy that Macbeth will be made Thane of Cawdor (a rank of Scottish nobility) and later on the King of Scotland. They also foresee that Banquo will give birth to a line of Scottish kings, although Banquo will never be king himself. Lights go off.

Pulling Shakespeare’s multiverses together

From the right side of the stage appears a disgruntled Iago (Sunil Shanker), who has only recently learnt that Michael Casio, an inexperienced soldier, has been given precedence to him for being Othello’s lieutenant. He is venting out his hatred towards Othello in front of Rodrigo, a filthy rich businessman who is eager to marry Desdemona and has just discovered that she is already married to her ‘ain true love’, Othello.

This leads us into two of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies; stories that fill their characters with ambition, greed, vengeance, and the audience with a sense of false hope. All of that eventually culminates into their collective fall and realisation that “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  And, when ‘idiot’ is replaced by the colloquial equivalent of “chu****pay,” the impact is indeed significant.

But this kind of impact is not specific to Here Lies a Noble Man. The Urdu translation of a particular soliloquy or a one-liner that catches you off-guard is reminiscent of a signature National Academy of Performing Arts translation, be that of Chekov, Sophocles or Shakespeare.

Done with the old, back with the new

Although not everything worked well, the intent to move beyond a typical rendition is evident in some very brave choices made by Sartaj, with the aggressive fight sequences being a personal favourite. They were well-timed and the swords were sharp and shiny enough to create an audio-visual impact. The fight sequences and the second-coming of the witches are also the only two places in the play where the rather intimate setting adds to the dramatic experience. Other than that, it only makes the seating uncomfortable, blocking a touch complicated for the audience sitting in a thrust theatre style.

In terms of acting, Mesam and Farhan Alam add the much-needed depth and dimension to the characters of Macbeth and Othello respectively. Though the heavy make-up on Farhan’s face did inhibit his movement at places, his height and a raucous tone open us to the contradiction of Othello’s dilemma. Shankar was one of the most seasoned artists in the line-up, but he ironically turned out to be the weakest link. His fumbles made monologues sound like speeches, and improvisation through cunning facial expressions didn’t save him from sucking the soul out of the most relatable character on stage.

Fresh minds take charge as Napa focuses on original plays

At the end of the day, both the characters and the director are driven by the singularity of one force, and that is ambition. Other than that, it seems the director was so fascinated by the idea of merging the two classics that he forgot the audience may actually want to see the plays being explored beyond a thematic connection.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2015.

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