Othello
97-98 Season Season

Patrick Stewart:The Veteran Shakespearean Actor Brings a "New Kind of Othello" to The Shakespeare Theatre

RAY GREENE

"I've been imagining myself playing Othello, and in a sense preparing for it, since I was about 14," Stewart says. "It was around then that I experienced a connection with this role that was stronger than any other at that time."


The old, somewhat masochistic adage says that artists must suffer, and by that measure, Patrick Stewart is feeling demonstrably artistic this afternoon. His nose is raw red, and he is reluctant to shake hands for fear that he's contagious. He no sooner sits down at our restaurant table than he is racked by a spectacular sneeze.

Stewart is fresh off a plane from Australia, where he has just finished playing Ahab for an upcoming cable film of Moby Dick. He spent twelve hours doing underwater shots on his second to last day of shooting, then spent his final day "having tons of icicle water dumped on me." After that, he caught a plane for Los Angeles and spent 16 hours in the air. "What you're looking at," he says, "is the remnants of the person who got on that plane."

Although technically Stewart is on vacation, there are signs it's a working holiday. He is mortified when the borrowed cell phone he's carrying goes off in the middle of lunch, and he mentions in passing that he has several meetings as well as this interview on today's calendar. He is also about to start work on Othello--a new production for The Shakespeare Theatre that represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

"I've been imagining myself playing Othello, and in a sense preparing for it, since I was about 14," Stewart says. "It was around then that I experienced a connection with this role that was stronger than any other at that time. When I used to go to class when I was young, I was forever looking for potential Iagos and Desdemonas who would play scenes from Othello with me."

Stewart's formative years as a member of England's famed Royal Shakespeare Company gave him the training necessary for the task. Working with such legendary directors as Trevor Nunn and Peter Brook, he honed that superb instrument of his by appearing in some of the most groundbreaking Shakespearean productions of all time. Despite the RSC's heavy production slate and its habit of cycling actors through multiple plays simultaneously, Stewart never had so much as a walk on in Othello--a fact for which "I'm so glad," he says now.

At least a portion of the reason for Othello's absence on Stewart's resume has to do with a cultural shift which the RSC, with its commitment to modernizing the canon, helped to bring about. "When the time came that I was old enough and experienced enough to do it, it was the same time that it no longer became acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface and to pretend to be African."

Still, the idea of playing Othello haunted Stewart, particularly during the last few years, when the demands of playing the lead on the weekly television series Star Trek: The Next Generation were lifted from him, and his time became more his own. The answer he eventually arrived at reflects the influence of the RSC's daring approach to Shakespearean adaptation: Stewart would invert the racial topography of the original text by playing Othello as the only white character in a society otherwise comprised completely of blacks.

"I call it a photo negative," Stewart says. "One of my hopes is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice. It might even say it in a more intense and possibly provocative way by reversing the usual racial characteristics."

Stewart is deeply aware of the possibilities for controversy in such an approach; three companies--"two American, one British"--rejected the concept before he found a sympathetic compatriot in Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre. Stewart is cautiously optimistic that whatever discussions this new Othello provokes will be of the socially productive kind: "To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society, will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism, and perhaps even question those triggers--you know, color of skin, physiognomy, language, culture--that can produce instant feelings of fear, suspicion and so forth." To buttress his confidence in the conception, Stewart discussed it repeatedly with black actors; to his relief, they were uniformly supportive of the idea.

Remarkably, and even though the original inspiration was his, Stewart can't be definitive about other aspects of Othello, such as possible changes of era or locale. The old RSC discipline has exerted itself, with Stewart surrendering the responsibility for those decisions to Jude Kelly--a director he personally solicited for the job, based on reputation alone.

An insight into Stewart's process as an actor is offered by the way he has intentionally shielded himself from becoming too involved with the preliminaries. "Whenever I read a play that I know," he says, "I try to artificially create a kind of state of innocence. It's only in that way that I can open myself to the text."

To Stewart, no playwright is more appropriate for such a voyage of rediscovery than Shakespeare. With Shakespeare, even when the actor's journey appears to be over, "it never is. The doors are never finally closed. The solutions, the answers to all of the questions, mostly still exist when the play is over. I always look on every Shakespeare performance as an attempt."

9/19/2005

 

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