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Opinions of Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Red Carpets, Mr Iago and Ekwow Blankson

If you were born in a country where aeroplanes are built by local engineers and assembled by college graduates from next door, you grow up with big dreams. You grow up hoping that you could walk to a place where you would receive a memorable mention, or that you could walk to another location where your name is actually the name of that place. At least, you would know one person who knows another whose grandfather helped invent something or solved a problem. You walk into a library and see bestsellers authored by people who share your ancestry. That is how scholarship, first-hand scholarship, is nurtured and developed. It puts you on the cutting-edge of knowledge.

It is also in a place like this that you see and hear of the finest quality of many products and services. You get to see the best performances of popular plays and films history has recorded. I had seen Shakespeare’s Othello five times in England in popular theatres. I would travel to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the classic at a point. The imposing theatres, elaborate but appropriate costumes, and gorgeous set designs hath a daily beauty in them that makes the Drama Studio of the School of Performing Arts in Legon miserable, just as Iago confesses in the play about Cassio: ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly." Often I would remain intimidated in my seat, daydreaming of a Hollywood Efua Sutherland Drama Studio equipped with modern sound effects, (not defects) and computer-programmed lighting (not lightening) and a lot of money to spend.

I lost the courage to attempt any form of character analysis or plot interpretation. Nobody could produce Shakespeare better than the English. Nonetheless, the addict in me would continue to hunt for other Othellos in Canada. This time, I refused to be intimidated. I would be bold to report that the Othello I saw in Ghana performed by students of the School of Performing Arts did me very fine in retrospect. The best student actor at the time, Ekwow Blankson, had played Iago in that never-to-be forgotten student production. And I can confirm that it is the best Iago I have seen in my own version of the Othello franchise. Of course, I am mindful of perhaps the most important quote in the play: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” The Legon play itself may not rival the English and Canadian versions I saw, in terms of general plot development and other dramatic effects, but Blankson’s portrayal of the villain in Iago is the best I have seen anywhere on the two continents.

The version I saw in the Canadian theatre last week was staged by a community theatre group. A very bulky fellow played Othello and put up a convincing show. But Shakespeare’s Othello is not about Othello, anymore than King Lear is about a King. Iago drives the plot of this tragedy. Remove Iago from the story and Othello is as good as Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark or indeed Much Ado without Don John. So, in many of the performances of the tragedy the world over, the Iago character is often the main attraction. He alone is responsible for 1097 lines, more than the protagonist himself, and more than any non-titled character in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Iago in this Canadian Othello did not portray what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as the “motiveless malignity” of the villain. Iago is a three in one character: He is the antagonist, Othello’s Ensign and then Emelia’s husband. And all three must be played with the honest cruelty of the Machiavellian manipulator. This is what Blankson did several years ago. He moved the action with tremendous energy and controlled the events–by the second. The performance is still fresh on my mind after 10 years.

Yet, the one week vintage performance at the Efua Sutherland studio was all for free. And students poured in to devour it-for free, too. Slap a little price on it and Banku wins the day. I paid $35 for the apology I saw last week. The community theatre will grow with public patronage and financial support. The Efua Sutherland Studio would not enjoy that support. Their Iago would tour popular theatres in New York and Los Angeles. And he would do better this time because money and sponsorship make Hollywood. There, we just left another African Hollywood script lying poor and breathing cold.

Of course, I am a critic of many things except the theatre, where I am most unqualified. I make the preceding comment like an audience member and a vicarious participant. Where we have made some very bad productions, like Coming to Cable Four, the Ghanaian-Nigerian mis-adaptation of Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, (perhaps the worst Ghally-Nollywood combo) and lots of other terrible artistic creations especially in the film and entertainment sector, I have not hesitated to register my dissatisfaction. These days, we are doing fine in showing naked bum even when the plot is better with only a few kisses and a hug. And it seems we are in for more flesh as script after script continues to offend Christian sensibilities with soft-porn and gay scenes. And surprisingly, the market seems very ready for those productions than the gospel.

Often people have asked about us: Are they working hard or they are hardly ever working? We know we have the talent, some really fine talents–across several fields. They have proven adequate for our purposes and for our expression of what is creative. A few would pass a Hollywood audition when given the chance. Already one or two have made it. Good signs of the times, even if the times have not proven good for our signs. Intelligent scripts, the likes of Source Code, the Duncan Jones directed blockbuster, or The Tourist featuring Angie Jolie and Johnny Depp, should challenge our scriptwriters. Maybe if we had the props and the money, our local talent would do just as fine as Jake Gyllenhaal. We should by now be tired of scenes of fetish priests chanting away.

It comes with a lot of problems but it helps that we have almost succeeded in importing the culture of celebrity worship to Ghana. Stars of yesteryears walked the streets with only a few handshakes and noisy applauses from children. They were just popular; not celebrities. These days, our actors and actresses enjoy celebrity attention. They reportedly command better wages and boast fleets of cars and properties. Nollywood recently published their version of the rich list. We have also read reports of young Ghanaian actresses multiplying their millions and setting up foundations for charity causes. This is the good side of the celebrity culture. Fortunately, some very good media organisations are supporting their works with fine reporting and gorgeous images. Of course, it sometimes gets funny and irritating when we deviate to talk about their pyjamas and amorous escapades. But it is great we are suddenly celebrating our best talents. The finest among them, the Blanksons, would always make themselves count.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, Ottawa, Canada

Email: bigfrontiers@ymail.com, quesiquesi@hotmail.co.uk