Laurence Olivier’s Othello (1964) was a performance so volcanic that no other leading British actor dared go near the part for years. Over the past decade, by contrast, Othellos have been snowballing as never before—next on the horizon being Clarke Peters (right) and Dominic West, famed Baltimore cops in “The Wire”, as Othello and Iago, in a production that will mark the 40th anniversary of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
Why the sudden popularity? Perhaps because the greatest black role ever written has finally become the property of black actors. “It’s Shakespeare’s toughest part,” Anthony Quayle once told me. “You have to carry the whole thing on your back, and on top of that you have to black up.” Not any more. English heroic actors were getting thin on the ground even in Quayle’s 1970s heyday, but the void has now been filled by black heavyweights like Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Harewood and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube—not forgetting Lenny Henry.
At the same time, “Othello” has come into focus as a force-field for colonial and cultural collision, with the action variously updated to EOKA Cyprus and an outpost of Islam where Ben Kingsley’s devout Moor looked all set to silence his spirited wife without any help from Iago. The play remains essentially a duologue, and any production only as good as its central partnership. Iago often steals the show, leaving his monumental victim as a sleeping volcano that never fully wakes up.
Sheffield will be Peters’s second crack at Othello, following a modern-dress version at Greenwich in 1989 in which he was a dapper, high-speed Moor, like one of Chinua Achebe’s African military careerists. If “The Wire” is anything to go by, Sheffield will yield something more substantial.
"Othello" opens at the Crucible, Sheffield on September 15th and runs to October 15th. Olivier's "Othello", with Maggie Smith as Desdemona, is available on DVD.