Of women and Shakespeare

By LARRY SMITH IT WAS not so long ago that women had few rights in western society. And even today, long after slavery was abolished in most of the world, many countries still treat women like chattel - a term that refers to moveable property. Until 1882, a woman's property in England was considered to be owned by her husband. In France, it was not possible until 1965 for a married woman to work, open a bank account or dispose of her own property without her husband's consent. It is only recently, with legal reforms and access to higher education that women have begun to break through the "glass ceiling" of male domination around the world. In the Bahamas, this process began after the Second World War and accelerated in the 1950s as part of a general movement towards greater democracy. Last week, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Woman's Suffrage Movement, the College of the Bahamas staged a symposium with presentations by relatives of the women who led the movement and pushed for equal rights. It was opened by Janet Bostwick, who in 1977 became the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly. She lamented the apparent disinterest in the struggle for women's rights today. "We have become complacent, materialistic and quiet. We have never been more educated, nor have we ever enjoyed greater levels of influence, yet this is hardly reflected in our involvement in seeking social justice and true equality. It is shameful." Alice Musgrove Rolle is the daughter of Mary Ingraham, who in 1951 (together with Mabel Walker, an American) led the first petition drive for equal rights. "I was eight when I sat on the wall in Hospital Lane asking passers-by to sign the petition," she recalled. "We were motivated back then, but who will fill those shoes today? There are many issues that still need to be addressed." Juliette Barnwell said her parents - Dr Claudius Walker and his wife Mabel - were instrumental in the fight for women's rights. In the early 50s, she was present at regular meetings held at Dr Walker's Reinhart Hotel on Tin Shop Corner. "My parents believed education was the key to political and social justice. We've made tremendous progress over the years - from teachers and nurses to the most influential jobs in the country, but the fight is not done." Wallis Carey, the daughter of Eugenia Lockhart, said her mother was always a champion of social justice. "She believed that the majority should not be led by the minority, and it was easy for H M Taylor to persuade her to join the Progressive Liberal Party. As a secretarial student I helped to produce many documents for the movement. It was enjoyable to fight for justice rather than a Mercedes-Benz." Andrew "Dud" Maynard is the son of Georgiana Symonette and brother of the late politician Sir Clement Maynard. He called on young people not to waste their lives. "Our foremothers made great sacrifices with you in mind, and you have to make an effort to make something of yourselves. My mother was like a general - she carried me everywhere she went so I could learn something instead of getting into foolishness." Shirley Cooper said her sister, Dame Doris Johnson, brought militancy to the movement when she led a march on the House of Assembly in 1959 and made a fiery speech demanding the right to vote and participate in civil affairs. She later became the first woman appointed to the Senate and the Cabinet. "I went on many marches and attended many meetings with Doris and the talk was always about getting the vote for women." After years of petitions, demonstrations, meetings and marches, the voting rights act for women was passed in February 1961 and came into effect four months later - in time for the November 1962 general election. And although she did not win the seat, in that election Doris Johnson became the first woman to run for the House of Assembly. In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement began in the 1870s and all women over 21 won the right to vote in 1928. The United States passed a constitutional amendment to give women full voting rights in 1920. And in Jamaica women were able to vote in 1944. Those Tragic Conchy Joes The memories are foggy at best, but back in the sweet summer of 1969 I took an English Lit exam that included questions about Shakespeare's famous tragedy, Othello - the Moor of Venice, which was written in 1603. My teacher for that exam was the venerable Roger Kelty, who arrived here in the 1960s. He coincidentally sat a few seats away from me at last week's performance in the Dundas Theatre of a stripped-down version of this tale of racial prejudice, jealousy and betrayal, with the alternate title of Othello or the Tragedy of the Conchy Joe. In this twisted adaptation, the non-white character of Othello was played by a former white schoolmate of mine named Craig Pinder, while the malignant Iago was portrayed by a black half-Bahamian actor named Moses Hardwick. And the brown Anglo-African Belinda Owusu played the white, upper class Desdemona. These three mixed-up characters (reduced from about a dozen in the original version) are isolated on a Bahamian fishing boat, with only a ship-to-shore radio for communication with the rest of the play. But many of the most familiar passages are included, like... Who steals my purse steals trash; 't is something, nothing; 'T was mine, 't is his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed. This particular Shakespearean tragedy is all about interracial love. Desdemona is the daughter of a wealthy Italian senator who elopes with the Moorish general, Othello. Her father's objections to Othello all have to do with his race and colour, as the relationship with his daughter goes "against all rules of nature". Shakespeare's portrayal of the Moor could have been based on a celebrated Moroccan ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth 1, who spent six months in London a couple of years before the play was written. But it could just as easily have been based on West Africans, who first appeared in London in 1554 and were considered undesirables by the early 1600s. It doesn't really matter. Othello is an African of one sort or another who has achieved prominence in European society as a military leader, but is never fully accepted. The plot is all about his envious assistant, Iago, scheming to put Othello in his proper place. But the performance I saw last week sought to present a condensed photo-negative version of this story, with Othello as a conchy joe fisherman in a black Bahamian society. It is not clear whether the analogy works, and without the superstructure of the original play it is not always easy to grasp, but it certainly had a novel appeal for Bahamian audiences. So I turned to my old English teacher pal for help. Kelty told me that, as a political statement about race and minority groups, the message did not resonate, and perhaps would go undetected without reading the official programme. "But if you were simply looking for a well-acted study in malicious gossip, sexual jealousy and murderous consequences, it seemed to me to have local relevance and entertainment value." The adaptation performed at the Dundas distilled Shakespeare's three-hour tragedy into about 75 minutes, which arguably made it easier to digest. As Pinder told me, "With all the sub-plots and additional characters missing, the audience can really zone in on the relationships that exist between the protagonist and the other main characters, for a much more intense emotional journey." However, Roger Kelty - who taught both myself and Pinder in high school - did not consider it wise to tamper with the genius of Shakespeare, a man he regards as one of the most brilliant who ever lived. "He was lucky to have been born at a time when the English language was not restricted by laws of grammar or spelling (there were no dictionaries until the 18th century) and he was free to give full expression to his wonderfully creative gifts in the use of words. Think of how many of the lines from his poems and plays have passed into everyday language. He is, unquestionably, the most quoted writer of all time." Shakespeare's writing stays current, Kelty said, because it focuses on the human condition. "His understanding of the human psyche is absolutely amazing; as seen in his realistic portrayal of sexual jealousy, ambition, revenge, and ingratitude in plays which could well be case histories in a modern psychology class. And most miraculous of all, it appears from studying the folios of his plays that he wrote at speed without careful thought or revision." But enough about Shakespeare. Perhaps the more interesting story here is that this great drama was adapted an directed by a Bahamian and performed successfully by Bahamian actors at regional theatres in Britain before coming to Nassau, where it barely managed to break even with a lot of help from generous sponsors. "It took a huge collective effort to bring this production to the Bahamas," according to Kim Aranha, the producer who saw the play in England and set about bringing it here. "The total cost was $40,000, including six transatlantic airfares, but about half of this amount had to be covered by sponsors, including myself. The promotional costs alone make productions like this prohibitive without a lot of help." Nevertheless, about 750 people came to see the play over five performances last week. But Aranha was hugely disappointed with the lack of interest from local schools, including the College of the Bahamas, which didn't even respond to a request for a venue. "Except for Tambealy, none of the schools we invited sent students, something which the cast couldn't understand." This is unfortunate. Craig Pinder, for example, has managed to achieve some celebrity on the British stage over the past few decades - which he attributes to his early participation in local amateur productions under the tutelage of his father, Bill Pinder, of Blanco Bleach fame. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he played several characters in the long-running British musical Les Miserables in the 1980s, and has racked up small TV parts in between his stage gigs. But theatrical productions can draw only a small audience locally at the best of times. Othello or the Tragedy of the Conchy Joe was directed and adapted by freelance theatre director Robin Belfield, the product of an English missionary father and a Bahamian mother, in collaboration with Pinder. In the play's production notes, Bellfield offered this rationale for their revision of Shakespeare. "We created a compact, intense production suitable to tour the UK and make the long trip to the Bahamas," he said. "Othello became a conchy joe - the minority outsider - and the military world of the original was replaced with a fishing-based environment. Historically, Shakespeare's Moor of Venice would have been seen as part of a despised and feared colonial minority from the past." Aranha, who has some theatre background herself, collaborated with Bellfield's Yellowtale Theatre of Sussex, and Nicolette Bethel's Shakespeare in Paradise group to organise the Nassau production. * What do you think? Send comments to larry@tribunemedia.net or visit www. bahamapundit.com.


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