Letter to our patrons: Othello
There is perhaps no play in Shakespeare’s canon that delves deeper into our modern tensions of racial, ethnic, and even religious identity than Othello. Othello, as everyone knows, is the “Moor of Venice,” but what exactly did Shakespeare mean by those terms? Was he imagining the character as a sub-Saharan African or an Arab from the Moroccan coast? Or was it something vaguer and more general, since the play abounds with references to locations in modern-day Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Black Sea? Even more mysterious than his ethnic identity is Othello’s religion. Was he born a Muslim, and has he converted to Christianity? It’s a question that, once posed, becomes increasingly fascinating as one way into this famous text, which is at once so familiar and at the same time such an endless source of discovery.
Without giving anything away, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on the play, and a few elements unique to this production:
- Based on our own production history, Othello can change drastically depending on how it is cast. As some of you might know, we have staged Othello three times previously, each time with different casting configurations. Our first production, directed by Harold Scott in 1990, had Avery Brooks (Othello), André Braugher (Iago), and Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Emilia) as native Africans in an alien society (Venice). As one critic noted, the play became less about race than about jealousy and ambition. This was followed by the “photo-negative” production with Patrick Stewart as Othello in an all-African-American world. Our last production, which I directed, emphasized an aging Othello (Avery Brooks), as written by Shakespeare, married to a young Desdemona (Colleen Delany) both encountering love for the first time. Patrick Page was Iago and won a Helen Hayes Award for his role.
- This upcoming production came about a little more than a year ago, when Ron Daniels approached me with a fascinating idea. He had a professional relationship with Faran Tahir, an American actor of Pakistani descent, whom he had once directed as his Oberon-Theseus in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Faran has made a career in major television productions such as American Crime, 24, and How to Get Away with Murder, as well as films including Iron Man, Star Trek, and Charlie Wilson’s War. And Ron wanted him to play Othello.
- Seeing himself as an ambassador for Muslim actors on stage and screen, Faran is sensitive to the need for complex depictions of such roles in the media. “If Othello is a Moor,” Faran says in our upcoming issue of Asides, “it affects how he interprets things and how he deals with life.” In other words, if the character is a Muslim who has converted to the religion and culture of the West, his identity as an outsider is crucial to understanding his complex motivations as the action of the play unfolds.
- Though we have done this play in richly diverse ways in the past, this production marks a first for us: Othello through a necessarily Islamic and Middle Eastern lens. As Michael Neill also notes in Asides, the last time Othello was regularly portrayed in this manner was in the 1830s, when Edmund Kean played the role as “a stately Arab of the highest caste.” This production will be set at the end of World War I, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the ill-fated Sykes-Picot Agreement. It is thus an era which looks out on the contours of our modern Middle East. It’s worth stopping and asking the question: what does Othello have to say to us about this corner of the world now? I suspect, unfortunately, a great deal.
I could not be more proud to share this production with you. We look forward to seeing you in our theatres again soon.
Shakespeare Theatre Company