Do you remember the tragic case of Jimmy Mizen? He was the 16 year old boy who went to a south London baker’s shop with his brothers to buy a sandwich where he was attacked in 2008. The assailant, later convicted of murder, killed Jimmy by hurling a heavy glass dish at him. By all accounts Jimmy was gentle lad, one of a large, very dignified Catholic family.
An unusual performance of Othello, I saw last week – with Mr and Mrs Mizen in the audience – set me thinking about all this again.
Culturcated Theatre Company has worked with around fifty young actors during the past year. Together they have explored the world of Othello – looking at gangs, relatationships, violence, honour killings and how Shakespeare’s play can tell the story of that world. Finally a cast – a mix of untrained performers and recent drama school graduates –is presenting it at the Brockley Jack Studio in South London until November 10.
The company also specialises in developing the performance skills of young actors by focusing particularly on Shakespeare’s language and ways of bringing the story to life in a contemporary setting.
Well it does that all right.
No longer are we in the racist streets of Venice and a claustrophobic military base in Cyprus. Instead, director Jennifer Lunn takes us to an isolated, knife-blighted, gang-ruled London housing estate. Thus Ntonga “Tango” Mwanza’s Othello becomes an exotic immigrant and former child soldier from Congo with many a romanticised story to tell. Iago (Jamael Westman) is jealously embittered by a lifetime in care. Sofia Stuart’s Desdemona is an Indian girl whose brother (Brabantio played by Ricky Sharma) wants a lucrative arranged marriage for his sister back home. All perfectly clear – as long as you read Lunn’s programme notes first.
Knives and violence are never far away and the second half of this pared down (2 hours) Othello is deeply moving because as, Mr Mizen told the press outside the court at the end of the murder trial in 2009, “it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Culturcated Theatre Company has linked up with the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, a registered charity, for this production. The foundation, the Mizen family’s way of remembering Jimmy positively, aims to make young people safer. It has opened a Café of Good hope (a safe, friendly coffee shop) in Lee and is soon to open another in Kidbrooke. Mr and Mrs Mizen give talks in secondary schools and work with other organisations with similar missions.
Mrs Mizen spent some time with the company discussing the impact of youth violence on families and communities. Culturcated Theatre Company actors collect donations to the Foundation at the end of each show.
Once again drama is, as it always did and always will, “doing issues” and making a difference. And everyone is learning.