Monday, March 21, 2011

Othello (Writers and their Work) by Emma Smith.

Commenting on last week's controversy surrounding television producer Brian True-May’s policy of casting whites only in pastoral television detective series Midsomer Murders, Guardian columnist Mark Lawson noted that such guidelines are an anathema in British theatres where a tradition of “colour-blind casting” means that as is currently the case in the National's Frankenstain, “a white son has a non-white father, with no narrative point (such as adoption) being made”.

As Emma Smith explains in this short commentary on Othello which ram-raids three of the main controversies surrounding the play (sexuality, race and domesticity), that tradition hits a wall in relation to the play’s title character, which since the defining casting of Paul Robeson in the 1930s has almost exclusively been played by African-American actors with only a few prominent examples (Welles, Olivier, Hopkins) upholding the tradition of blacking up set by Garrick.

She argues, quite persuasively (aided by a useful quote from actor Hugh Quarshie) that far from countering racism, casting a black actor in the role increases the danger of playing up to the stereotypes inherent within the play and that by casting a white actor in the part, as Jude Kelly did in her 1997 “photo-negative” attempt with Patrick Stewart acting against a predominantly African American cast, you can defuse the racial elements, dislocating them from being a lazy explanation for Othello’s jealousy.

Like many of the critics who’ve wrestled with these more contentious aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, Smith doesn’t have an answer. But she does offer a deliberately inclusive approach to her discussion, cross cutting opinions from a range of sources introducing not just the standard texts (Bradley, Levis, Dover Wilson) but theatre critics, the actors who’ve had to provide a logical psychological presence within their performance and even the implications characteristic of the love-triangle based marketing of the play on film.

She cleanly demonstrates that as is so often the case with Shakespeare, everything has a double meaning. The playwright challenged assumptions by putting all the “Machiavellian malignity” previously integral in black characters into Othello’s white deputy allowing his title character to retain the skin colour and sexuality. While the play has all of the hallmarks of a traditional “domestic tragedy” it deliberately fails to give us much indication of the central couple’s relationship dynamic. That Iago is essentially a clown with a mean streak.  Intriguing.

Emma Smith has recently prepared a podcast about the play, which is available from the University of Oxford website.

Othello (Writes and their Work) by Emma Smith is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0746309995. Review copy supplied.

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