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EXCLUSIVE: Giles Terera (Death of England: Face to Face), winner of an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in the London transfer of Broadway hit Hamilton, will star in a history-making production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, with Rosy McEwen, who won acclaim in the second season of The Alienist, as Desdemona.
The play will be directed at the UK’s National Theatre by Clint Dyer, marking the first time the play has been directed by a Black man at a major British venue. American-born Shakespearean scholar Dr. Jami Rogers hailed the outcome as “a major milestone in the history of British Shakespeare.”
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Rogers told Deadline: “This means that the white lens through which the play has almost always been viewed will be challenged.”
The play, about a man who rose from slavery to become a respected Black military leader and ambassador who marries a powerful Venetian senator’s white daughter, will open on the National’s Lyttelton stage November 23, running through January 21.
The National Theatre’s digital arm, NT Live, will broadcast Othello to cinemas worldwide in 2023. Dyer said he’s excited about filming the stage production.
He told us: “I want to make it thrilling, make it feel like a movie experience. I don’t want it to necessarily be held in just an old-fashioned theater form. I do hope I can make it feel more impactful by using other techniques, such as video screens, than just using the words.”
Dyer (Sus), who directed Terera in last year’s NT film production of Death of England: Face To Face, was appointed deputy artistic director of the NT 18 months ago. He labelled past versions of Othello “questionable” in terms of the racial dynamic of white actors blacking up to play the title character.
Dyer added that a production of Othello, mounted at the UK’s premier theater, starring a Black actor and directed by a Black man, as “a sea-change in ideology, a huge thing. A Black man directing Shakespeare at the National is a huge thing!”
Dyer’s view is that those white directors of previous explorations of Othello “didn’t feel comfortable with being able to articulate the Black experience through the piece and so instead they’d just avoid it. And so that the National having a Black man direct it through a Black lens… is beyond belief.”
The production, co-starring Paul Hilton (Slow Horses) as Othello’s nemesis Iago, will redress an imbalance in many previous versions that has, seemingly, shifted more attention to the scheming Iago. “It’s not called Iago, it’s called Othello,” Dyer insisted.
He was scathing about a famous 1990 production directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company starring the great baritone and actor Willard White as the Moor and Ian McKellen as Iago. There’s also a video version of it. Dyer told Deadline: “I watched that and Ian McKellen is amazing, there’s no two ways about it, but my feeling is that we are allowed to enjoy that performance more readily than Othello’s.”
The theater artist suggested Nunn’s and other productions “are all falling prey to the same subconscious and conscious biases that mean it’s not [racism] at the top of their agenda. I suffer racism every day so it’s obviously at the top of my agenda. This is obviously special to me. The only thing I’m trying to do is to spark a conversation so we can move forward from those conversations, not backwards.”
However, Dyer said that his objections aren’t “necessarily about me trying to turn anyone away or off the productions that have been done before,” even though, he said, he has sat through performances of Othello where the “audience has laughed at outrageous racism. Laughed at it as though it was a comedy.”
Dyer will somehow use those past productions of the play as a way of understanding “why, when and how we observe this piece. I want to try and articulate an experience that speaks to the Black experience but really also speaks to the white experience.”
Over the years, Dyer said, he’s often been troubled by the world in which other directors have set their productions of Othello “whereby this Black man gets to this position leading a Venetian army and everybody’s cool about it.”
Becoming exercised about such a premise, Dyer exclaimed: “Find me that world because once it comes to race people won’t give him the respect he deserves.”
Shakespeare, even when he was writing in the early 16th century, knew exactly what he was talking about when it came to power “where men will do anything to feel more powerful than someone who is different from them, and that includes women because this is such a play about misogyny,” said Dyer.
Terera, a thespian, writer and singer, told us that he’s interested in exploring the play from Othello’s perspective. “This is a man who’s African-born, he’s come to Europe and he excels in his life and in his chosen profession. His sense of who he is, I think, is very strong. Obviously, he’s living in a white world and he’s trying to navigate all of that.”
The actor observed that prominent people of color “whether they’re in the entertainment industry or sports, they are judged differently from their white counterparts.”
Othello, too, is a prominent person and Terera needed to study him from a Black perspective, way different from the white viewpoint he was taught in school and via prior productions.
“Whenever there’s an O.J. Simpson, Will Smith, or whoever it happens to be, they are looked at in a specific way, often through eyes that aren’t their own culture. So Michael Jackson can respond in a certain way that makes perfect sense to me but doesn’t make sense to the media. It’s not to justify or excuse whatever their behavior might have been, but at least you can understand, perhaps, it when you are from the same culture. From my perspective as an actor I need to understand where this character’s [Othello] coming from.”
Terera was struck by how well Shakespeare, writing over five centuries ago, understood the nature of racism.
The play begins with Iago and another character trying to ruffle feathers by claiming to Desdemona’s father that the Moor has stolen his daughter, which is untrue. Iago fails to get that point across “so Iago introduces racism,” explained Terera.
“He says to the father, ‘An old Black ram is topping your white ewe.’ Iago uses racism all the way from then on in order to get across what he needs from people, which is to bring down Othello. To me, that really speaks to now, whether you’re talking about Brexit, Donald Trump, or whatever — certain parties using racism and intolerance in order to achieve their means,” said Terera.
Another matter that the cast and creatives have discussed is the nature of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. “It cannot just be a physical, sexual, lustful thing. I believe they see something in one another that speaks to a much higher plane. The nature of their relationship has to be very clear [in this production] because often we think of Black men in an overly stylized way and we tend to think of Black men, or society does, purely in sexual terms,” Terera explained.
”Their connection is on many levels,” he said. They’re very specific about the kind of person each wants to be with, he added.
Rogers is an Honorary Fellow in Multicultural Shakespeare at the University of Warwick. She works regularly with the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity on diversity in television, and is the author of recently published in the UK and U.S., British Black and Asian Shakespeareans: Integrating Shakespeare, 1966-2018.
She noted that other African-Caribbeans have directed the play over the years, though at much smaller venues. The National Theatre’s considered Britain’s flagship theater.
The Black men who have directed Othello in Britain include Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air); and Hugh Quarshie (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace) who, with Sue Dunderdale, co-directed a little known production that, Rogers said, was groundbreaking at Greenwich Theatre, London in 1989 because it had the first pairing of a Black Othello and Iago, who were played by Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Paul Barber (The Full Monty), respectively.
Dyer’s creative team on Othello includes Chloe Lamford, set designer; costumes by Michael Vale; with Jai Morjaria signed on as lighting designer. Pete Malkin is music director; Benjamin Grant’s the sound designer; with Lucie Pankhurst as movement director. Kev McCurdy is fight director.
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