Chris Van Rensburg plays Iago and Nhlakanipho Manqele is Othello in Think Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello. Picture: Supplied

After a successful tour of KwaZulu-Natal, Think Theatre has brought the Bard’s greatest tragedies – Hamlet and Othello – to Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Both productions, under the helm of multi-award winning director, writer, teacher and actress Clare Mortimer, will be running in tandem at venues in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Tonight caught up with Mortimer to find out a little more about the shows.

Shedding light on what was keeping her busy before overseeing these two stage productions, she shared: “In December I was working on two shows for children at a theatre in Durban, and before that I was touring the country with A Voice I Cannot Silence by Ralph Lawson and Greg Homan. The work on the Shakespeare season takes up a good bit of the year. Margie Coppen and I co-produce the shows.”

Asked about her role as a director, she revealed: “I began helping Garth Anderson with his productions when I moved to Durban in 2002. Margie had been marketing and booking for him for a while then. Garth became ill in the early stages of rehearsal and I fell into the role of director by default – that was for King Lear. When it became difficult for him to get around I took over completely. Margie and I agreed to increase the production budgets to include full sets and costumes. Furthermore, we decided to tour the productions.

“It feels like a good fit for me. Shakespeare is so very much alive and relevant in our day, and it brings immense joy to me to be able to produce and perform these genius works for young learners. I am inspired by our audiences, most of whom are second-language speakers, as I am by the text and its acute observation of the human condition.”

She also praised the brilliant and talented cast for their commitment to fulfilling Think Theatre’s mandate.

Durban Theatre award winner Nhlakanipho Manqele is the lead in Othello with Chris van Rensburg as Iago and Bryan Hiles is at the heartbeat of the second play, Hamlet.

She noted: “Nhlaka and I had worked together before, a while ago. I was struck mostly by his commanding voice. I saw him in a few shows after this and knew he would make a fine Othello. He wasn’t so sure. Once I had gagged and bound him and driven him blindfolded to a dark forest, he saw the light and agreed to give it a go.

“Chris van Rensberg I auditioned in Joburg last year. And though he is a gentle soul, I knew his erudition and intelligence would give a multi-layered attack to the character of Iago. And he is great in the role.

“Bryan Hiles and I don’t work a lot together, but he is probably the most versatile actor I know. He has an honesty and lack of ‘staginess’ that suits the way I think we should work these texts.”

As the director of both offerings, Mortimer uses her innate understanding of Shakespeare as well her ability to impart knowledge to her advantage.

She explained: “I think having taught at school helps in two ways. I understand the texts thoroughly, and love them, too. More than that, I know very well what drives the plays, what can be cut, what must be there, what must be emphasised and what is trifling. I understand, too, what the learners take away from it, and what they need to see and hear. It all sits well with the ease I like my cast to have on stage. No declaiming, no reverence. Just tell the story and do it well.”

As for her female leads, she offered: “Cara Roberts plays Ophelia and Desdemona and she is a rare find. She is tiny in stature but could light a city with her energy and chops. Desdemona, particularly, is singularly brave in her choices. She certainly makes her mark.”

What can theatregoers expect?

She hinted: “Expect no frilly shirts, pantaloons and tunics. Expect a full set. That’s all I am saying about that. Though both shows have a concept, they are neither modern nor ‘period’. They are accessible but not tied to a time or place.”

Mortimer continued: “Margie and I are committed to reaching as many learners as we can, and while the show has its costs, of course, we are determined to access the far-flung and often indigent areas. In KZN, our outreach is more developed that in Gauteng. 

There we travel into the Battlefields, up and down the North and South Coast, the Midlands as well as central Durban. In Gauteng, we have been able to offer our usual discounted or complimentary tickets to indigent schools. We did try to team up with an organisation on the Highveld who were better placed to source where we would be needed, but it hasn’t quite worked out as yet. We will continue to investigate.”

After this run, she is back in Durban for Greg King’s James and the Giant Peach.

She shared: “Greg directs and designs – big treat there. And I get to play with Be Henwood, Nhlaka, Bryan, dear Peter Court and Lyle Buxton.”

Runs at University of Johannesburg until May 19, then at Brooklyn Theatre, Pretoria. 

The outreach performances will be at Pretoria University from May 29 to 31. School shows: 9am and 12pm daily. Public evening shows: 7pm on Thursday and May 16. 

** To book contact Doreen Stanley: [email protected] or 084 556 0668.