The National Theatre Live’s recorded broadcast of Othello included a discussion with the black director, Clint Dyer. His vision put violence against women as a key feature and got us all thinking. The beginning of the play, where former images of ‘blackface’ Othello productions flash up on the set, immediately confronts these uncomfortable portrayals from the past. A cleaner symbolically wipes the floor clean.
We started by talking about Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Othello in the past, now highly uncomfortable. A black actor playing the role is nothing radical, however. Ira Aldridge, a black American who made Britain his home, took the part in London in 1833. He was known for his anti-slavery speeches to the audience after the performances. Our knowledgeable discussion leader told us how Paul Robeson played Othello a hundred years later. Movingly, Aldridge’s daughter had given Robeson the gold earrings her father wore for the part.
We heard from the composer in our group about Verdi’s opera Otello and how Iago was the central figure in this. Paul Hilton’s expressive and chilling Iago was one of the highlights of this production.
We explored the black and white/good and evil theme running throughout the play. The angelic Desdemona is shown in bright light when she first walks on stage. Another discussion member pointed out that some parts of Shakespeare’s text had been cut, meaning that Iago’s motivation to destroy Othello seemed to be led by pure racism.
Each character had its flaws and perhaps Othello was just too trusting to be a strong leader. We had an interesting talk about his background as a ‘Moor’, what was meant by this and how Elizabethans perceived the world.
Tanya Franks’ portrayal of Emilia as the bruised abused wife of Iago, finally moved to vengeance, touched us all. This interpretation reflected the director’s belief that racists were probably misogynists as well.
The costume design, with echoes of military uniforms and garb of Mosley’s Blackshirts, projected a bleak vision of a totalitarian society. The chilling chorus on the arena style stage is described in the cast list as ‘System’. Society was also to blame for this tragedy, not just the individuals.
A fascinating group discussion about this minimalist, challenging and tense version of Othello which certainly broke new ground.