In 2019, to say that Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello seems so very relevant is haunting. And yet it’s all there, depressingly playing out in real time. Scenes of carnage unfolding quite akin to Othello, a play in which racism tears lives apart, a play where women can’t win. Trump’s travel ban and war on immigrants. Fake news. Brexit. Toxic masculinity and a #MeToo era.
Today, with the odds being perpetually stacked against both outsiders and the ‘other’, and women, over 400 years later the argument that Othello could be the Bard’s greatest tragedy gains strength.
The tale of doom, pride and jealousy has had myriad interpretations of course, and it returns yet again as a theatre play with a contemporary turn and a strong focus on cultural identity — and this time Othello is portrayed as Muslim in a racist Venetian society.
The production by Richard Twyman and the English Touring Theatre has been on a critically acclaimed London run and has toured around about 30 cities across the UK. It’s now making its way to the UAE’s shores, to the Dubai Opera from January 31. It’s the first time a play will be performed on the Opera stage, and it’s difficult to imagine a more fitting, thrilling tale worthy of that honour than a play tackling racial and sexual injustice.
Director Richard Twyman said he first considered Othello being Muslim could be intrinsic to the character’s identity around 2016. It was a thought seconded by the play’s creative advisor Abdul-Rehman Malik, his long-time collaborator, a journalist, activist and educator. Richard says: ‘I reread Othello after having studied it when I was young, when the thing that came up strongly and resonated with me was jealousy. As an assistant director later, I was so fascinated by Iago — a character who feels overlooked by life, who thinks he deserve better, the anger of that, that desire to take down people who stood in the way. That kind of manipulation I thought was fascinating.
‘And about 12 years after that, it felt right with the cultural moment we’ve been living in so much more aware of identities and representation.’
Richard also saw it as a chance to look at British classics through a new lens, to find out the hidden stories. ‘The subtitle is Othello the Moor, and all through he’s referred to as the Moor. That has been tackled only in a superficial way so far. I realised there is so much more to it. then Abdul told me about the book This Orient Isle, which explores the cultural and religious exchange happening in that period, the Elizabethan England’s relationship with the Islamic world. This play is set in a great tradition of plays written in that period that had Muslim characters and explored western anxiety over “the other”. Of fear, how vicious it is to a cosmopolitan person like Othello who speaks multiple languages, who is able to go from one world to another, who is able to exist in a military world.’
The parallels today are striking — ‘very sadly!’, says Richard. When the cast first rehearsed, it was the time of Trump’s travel ban, and Richard says the rhetoric around it was unbelievable, and so similar to some of the Venetian characters and how they treated Othello — the fear of the outsider. ‘Just like with Brexit — there’s an anxiety in a lot of the population, with a very little understanding of immigration. The “other” rising, and the pressure we put on people to assimilate is tangible in the play, and that makes it feel very contemporary.’
For Victor Oshin, who plays Othello, all of this certainly rings true, with the character’s journey resonating with his own as a black man. ‘He’s a Muslim, also in hiding, in a Christian state, covering up his identity. For me, growing up having to go to school in different areas, speaking a certain way at home, but at school I’d be trying to speak as British as possible so I could be heard or well spoken. That rang true, yes — having to assimilate into a culture that’s not exactly your own but becomes yours in the end.’
Victor says in today’s political climate, the American government echoes the play, and served as a kind of motivation politically in a creative direction. ‘Trump administration’s Caucasian mix of people is the same as the Venetian state’s — and it’s all men as well.’
Time and again though, we’ve seen portrayals of other religions to be reductionist stereotypes — and it’s not an easy issue to tackle and counter. Richard agrees, and says making sure the stories they were telling was responsible and articulate was central for him. ‘It was very important that Othello’s spirituality and religion were synonymous to the best parts of him as a human. His love for Desdemona, his brilliance as a general, his honesty. A big stereotype always is that as he becomes violent he becomes more African — I don’t think that’s what Shakespeare has written, and definitely not what I wanted to portray. Othello starts off true to himself, then having to hide himself, turns his back on his spirituality and corrupted by Iago sees him become more violent. So Iago represents a malevolent, in this context a Western idea of culture, a patriarchal idea that was very prevalent in society then.’
Which bring us straight to controversial global conversation No. 2. In a month where a razor blade commercial is making headlines by referencing bullying and the #MeToo movement, you can’t celebrate masculinity without acknowledging the toxic bit of it. Richard sees it as a real privilege to be doing the play now because of the rise in awareness everywhere, with the audience being so much more astute and aware of gender dynamics. ‘The first half of the play tackles racism and love. The second half, meanwhile, is more interested in patriarchy, which sadly Othello buys into. It investigates relationships and what it means to be man and woman, and power dynamics.’
This is particularly seen with [Iago’s wife] Emilia in the final scene, when she becomes the most important character. She’s calling out men’s behaviour, and men are trying to silence her, but she refuses to bow down, she fights to speak. It’s a character that at this cultural moment feels so significant.
It’s a doomed, volatile subject, with lies and deceptions and soul-destroying consequences. Richard says Othello can be a dangerous play, one you have to go into with your eyes open, and one that has a habit of coming back at you. ‘There’s something very visceral about it; it gets you in the gut — it’s a tragedy, a thriller, there’s something disturbing, and exciting. Audiences often say how painful it is to watch. They put their hands to their mouth in shock, at the audaciousness of Iago. They’re appalled, they’re shaking their heads at him.
It’s a lot of resonances, and Richard is hoping audiences in Dubai will respond to them — and that the lens of Shakespeare and the play can give rise to ways for conversations around racism, prejudice and misogyny. ‘A play that deals with ideas that are affecting our daily lives wherever we are in the world, being wrestled with on an international stage — with the exciting mix of audiences in such an international city, I’m excited for the mix of responses.’
But he acknowledges the main reaction they are keen on is one of timeliness, and timelessness. ‘Everyone has an expectation of what Shakespeare is and I want the audience to go “oh I didn’t know Shakespeare plays could contain things directly relevant to my context”.’
Victor’s seen some interesting reactions — ones that say a lot about a particular place’s attitudes. Especially the time he “killed” himself on a UK city’s stage and everyone started laughing. He says he remembers thinking, ‘well you obviously cared’.
‘You really realise who the crowd is rooting for and whose side they’re on — Iago or Othello,’ says Victor. ‘Boxing-ring connotations. And I kind of love when they’re on the side of Iago, because I want them to be really guilty at the end — a man’s dead because of you. The story of love has been corrupted by manipulation — and you should feel terrible if you support that manipulation.’
Othello plays at the Dubai Opera on January 31 and February 1 and 2, with a matinee and evening performance on Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at Dh150; dubaiopera.com.