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Othello: Moor than the role of a lifetime

Article by Michelle Griffin, published in The Age, 7 June 2010:

AS A 1.9-metre-tall Tongan, 27-year-old actor Anthony Taufa is very conscious of resisting typecasting. ”I’ve always said I’m more than a security guard,” says Taufa, who has just graduated from NIDA’s prestigious acting course.

”I want to show the world that Islanders are as liberal and complex as any other nationality in Australia. ”I do want vulnerable roles, I do want to be in love, to do romantic leads.”

But there is one role Taufa happily accepts as his lot in life: Othello, the Moor of Venice. At 27, he is about to play the 50-something soldier for the fourth time, as the lead in The Kingsmen’s production at fortyfivedownstairs.

”I think James Earl Jones played Othello 24, maybe 25 times. You find things every time you play it. And more experience means a better understanding of what it’s about.”

But he would love to play the scheming Iago from the same play some time – ”Put that in! I’d love to do it, if it could be accepted to have an Islander man play the other role in Australia.”

Taufa was keen to work with veteran director Peter King, whom he met when King as artist-in-residence at NIDA.

Taufa was only 18 when he first played out Othello’s harrowing final act. In his final year at Mill Park Secondary College, Taufa won a place at ANU’s Youth Shakespeare Globe Festival in Canberra in 2000.

”I guess I didn’t have the grasp I have now of the role and what it actually means,” he says. ”Not just the racial issues but the relationship issues, which the 18-year-old me didn’t know about, but the 27-year-old me does, or might.”

He then played Othello as a CEO in Melbourne’s 2001 Fringe, and as an intense introvert for a NIDA production. ”I spent a lot of time alone in my second term, second year.”

The key to his latest performance lies in something said by Brabantio, Desdemona’s father: ”She has deceived her father, and may thee.”

”It’s that tug of war you can have within yourself about what to do in a relationship,” he says.

Taufa was already a Shakespeare buff when The 7.30 Report interviewed him at the ANU festival. ”I reckon it’s heaps and heaps of fun, Shakespeare,” he said, but his school mates teased him for his bardolatry. ”[They] just called me names and really tried to push me away from performing, because they thought it was not a male thing to do.”

Ten years later, Taufa says he owes his acting career entirely to two people – William Shakespeare himself, and his year 9 drama teacher, Chris Button, who now teaches at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.

”He actually made drama a place of educating yourself as well. It wasn’t just about getting up and performing, it was about knowing the world you live in.”

Taufa says he was like Chris Lilley’s schoolboy character Jonah when he started high school. Not a natural athlete like his two older brothers, Taufa looked for some other way to stand out.

” [Jonah] is just a kid who wants to have fun. That was me too,” he says, admitting that ”I wouldn’t swear at teachers, but I’d push buttons to try and get a reaction.”

Drama proved the key. By year 12, he was not only a bona fide drama nerd, but the class captain. ”A lot of Tongan kids didn’t get the opportunities I did. I know so many Islander kids who are natural performers, but they’re ridiculed and shut down because teachers don’t know how to coax that and sway that into creativity being a good thing.”

The Kingsmen’s Othello, 7.30pm tomorrow until June 26, fortyfivedownstairs. Book 9662 9966.

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