The nationals won't say white is black. Moor's the pity

This week in London sees a rare theatrical event, a new production of Shakespeare's Othello.

It is bizarre that such a statement can be made about one of the most famous tragedies in the English language, doubly bizarre as Othello is on some of this year's A-level syllabuses - and the Royal Shakespeare Company, for one, rarely needs prompting to put on syllabus plays. Yet it is six years since the RSC staged Othello, with the black opera singer Willard White in the title role, and more than a decade since the play was last seen at the National Theatre, with Paul Schofield playing the Moor.

This week's production is being given by the National Youth Theatre, with 18-year-old Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello. Significantly, the NYT's artistic director Edward Wilson says: "I wouldn't dream of doing the play, much as I love it, if it weren't for the fact that I have an excellent young black actor in the company."

And he's not the only one who wouldn't dream of it. For our two "adult" national companies, the RSC and the National - neither of whom has a nationally renowned black actor - this has become the play that dares not speak its name.

The reason, of course, is the fear of offending sensibilities by having a white actor black up. Richard Eyre, artistic director of the RNT, tells me: "The National has to set an example." And an RSC spokeswoman says: "It is extremely unlikely we would ever cast a white actor in the part again."

And so the play remains unperformed by our two leading subsidised companies. Young audiences miss the chance to see it on stage, and the best Shakespearian actors of our age cannot play one of the most challenging roles ever written, or measure themselves against the late Laurence Olivier.

I saw Olivier's Othello as a child, but the memory remains vivid. It was an enthralling and moving evening. Richard Eyre curiously describes Olivier's performance as "barely risible", but I suspect that is a judgement emanating from a political consciousness of three decades on. At the time, people slept outside the theatre to get tickets the next day.

Would it be so terrible to have a white actor play Othello? The fear seems to be confined to the theatre. I have never heard of a single complaint when Placido Domingo puts on make-up to sing Verdi's Otello.

Othello was not a 20th-century black but a Moor, an outsider, different in style and manner from black actors today just as he is from white. Theatre is a world of make-believe: white playing black in Othello is part of a 400-year-old theatrical tradition; it is not patronising or racist.

The irony, of course, is that the National Theatre is currently presenting Fiona Shaw as Richard II. A woman can play a man, black can, and often does, play white, but white may not play black. It's time for action.

n 'Othello': today to 23 Sept, Bloomsbury Theatre, WC1 (0171-388 8822)

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