GREGORY DORAN: Othello is really one of the four great Shakespeare tragedies. It comes in that middle period of Shakespeare’s life. You can understand that he would become cynical in the early 1600s. You thought you were living in this secure society, and then suddenly there’s a terrorist attack, which nearly brings down, not only the entire government, but assassinates the entire royal family and most of the peers and bishops of the land. And that means that suddenly everything that you thought was secure in society or in your world evaporates. The moorings have somehow disappeared. And that’s the period in which Shakespeare writes Othello.
It’s a period in which he seems to stare with a very steady eye at some of the elements in our makeup which are ugliest– sexual jealousy, prejudice, racism, all those things. It is perhaps one of the most intense experiences to watch of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I think when I started thinking about directing Othello, I was aware that it’s a big, heavyweight match between Othello and Iago. And in the end, it’s actually a quartet with Emilia and Desdemona as the other two corners of that quartet. I think having invited Antony Sher to play Iago, I knew that Tony had a very particular perspective on racism, having been brought up in apartheid South Africa.
And we had done a production together there of Titus Andronicus with an extraordinary black actor called Sello Maake Ka-Ncube. And Sello– it suddenly felt like a really interesting idea to bring those two men, those two actors from either side of the apartheid divide, who had grown up with this institutionalised racism, and see what their perspectives on Othello would be. So really, that was our starting point was to find an environment for the play which seemed to suit Sello and Tony’s own perspective. We didn’t set out to set it in a South African context. It was really more those two particular actors’ experience, which was inveterate to their beings.
And I think their different experience of that meant, inevitably, that that aspect of the play was heightened for us. It’s really fascinating how the play works in front of an audience and also how the setting you choose can advantage or disadvantage one or other of the characters.
Iago speaks directly to the audience. So does Othello. But Iago speaks in prose, almost entirely in prose. And he makes the audience complicit in what he is doing. Othello speaks mostly in verse, and extraordinarily beautiful verse at that. But it makes the character of Othello much more difficult to crack than Iago. Iago, in a way, is quite an easy part. It’s a fantastic part. But it has very easy access through the language, through the prose, immediately to the audience. And that, of course, can be helped by a modern dress production, where he seems to be even more recognisable as one of those square-bashing NCOs that is foul-mouthed.
Every time Iago opens his mouth, some terrible sexual allusion seems to drop out of it. Othello, he has a kind of heightened verse. He talks of God. He uses quite extravagant imagery. And sometimes in a modern context, that makes him even more remote as a character. It can exoticise him, if you like.
What I think Sello Maake managed to create by drawing on his own ancestry, his own heritage, and his own tribal heritage as a man was somehow creating a sense– when he said, “arise black vengeance from thy hollow cell,” he stamped on the ground, which in his culture, there is, through the Sangoma, ways of raising spirits, which he drew upon, which of course made him a much more terrifying experience and somehow made the extravagance of his language seem much more vivid, more alive, if you like. I think race is clearly an element in the play. Of course it is. I think it’s a play about power. It’s a play about power struggles between men and indeed between men and women.
I think primarily, it’s a play about jealousy. I think you could argue that it is as much that Iago, or rather, Othello, falls prey to Iago because of Iago’s jealousy, jealousy about the position this black man has found himself in a what Iago regards as a white society, that he has been overlooked by Cassio, his lieutenant, is jealous of his wife and the relationship. But he seems to have a very good relationship with this young white wife. So jealousy is an inveterate part of Iago’s makeup.
And I think that in a way, just as much as Shakespeare explores jealousy in all its different forms, he has to examine the flip side of that and examine what trust really is about, how far you can trust somebody and when you must stop trusting them, as Emilia learns to do with Iago.