Othello cast in his society's own image

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Glance at theatre listings pages and you will find precious few stagings of Othello. Shakespeare's problem play either frightens off directors, or they try to make Othello politically acceptable and wish that Sydney Poitier was still young enough to play the part.

Harrogate Theatre's Artistic Director Andrew Manley sees Othello as clearly a racist play, though he can't decide whether Shakespeare was being deliberately racist or just reflecting the racism inherent in his society. Manley has no patience with politically correct interpretations of Othello or The Merchant of Venice because he says Shakespeare was not politically correct and to imply otherwise is wrong. Manley's 1994 production of the The Merchant had an evil, twisted Shylock.

Manley began to put together ideas for his forthcoming production of Othello by considering the deeply ingrained elements of racism that are still prevalent, such as the myth of black men's potency. His abstract, austere set will feature a wall with racist slogans.

He dwells on the character of Iago at length. It is one of the biggest parts in Shakespeare and he has most of the soliloquies. "Yes, Iago is meant to be enjoyed by the audience. He is evil and he's plotting against a black man who has married a white woman. And as Germaine Greer has said, Iago is still around and pushing excrement through letter boxes . . .

"And in the end it's not just Iago who's driven by and undermined by racism, it's Othello. He's married a white woman. Othello is that black man who's trying to be a white man and that's his downfall because he doesn't trust himself as a white man."

Manley's casting of the two main parts has been governed by his analysis of character. Iago will be played by Oliver Hickey who looks an agreeable young man on stage. Manley explains: "The danger with Iago is to cast him as an evil type who tries to be nice."

At first it seems shocking to have a white actor, Damian Myerscough, blacking up for Othello. But this is consistent with Manley's thinking.

"It's part of the idea that we have created black men in the image that we want to create them - then we can knock them down! Othello is a flawed character, he's vainglorious, overly proud and he's a person who disintegrates as the play goes on.

"To ask a black actor to play a black part in what is essentially a racist play is an extremely dodgy thing to."

November 2-18 at Harrogate Theatre. Tel: 01423 502116.

o Stephen Daldry's award-winning revival of An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley returns to the West End at the Garrick Theatre on 24 October. An education pack will be available. Box office tel: 0171 494 5085. Group reductions tel: 0171 494 5454.

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