When Olivier blacked up to play the Moor

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The Independent Culture
On 21 April 1964, Sir Laurence Olivier appeared in the only major Shakespearian role he'd avoided - Othello - as part of the National Theatre's inaugural rep season. He'd had reservations but, at 57, took up an arduous gym regime, and six months of voice-coaching to lower his voice by an octave.

The effect, even at the first read-through, was startling. Kenneth Tynan records how "a hand grenade" was tossed into the relaxed session as Olivier "fell on the text like a tiger ... a fantastic, full-volume display that scorched one's ears". In his autobiography, Olivier states that he didn't want a "pale, coffee-coloured compromise" look. So he endured two and a half hours in make-up; Anthony Holden's biography describes how his body was stained black from head to toe, then polished; his lips were thickened, his eyes whitened.

Critical reaction to this transformation was of its time. "He has evolved a range of movement organically related to the part" (the Times); "By heaven knows what witchcraft, [he] captures the very essence of what it must mean to be born with a dark skin" (Express); "this Othello compels you to accept him, not merely as a coloured man, but as a Negro, with a Negroid speech" (Guardian).

But some critics were dubious. "The cat-like pacings, the prolonged notes of agony" were "too maniacal" (Standard); "a kind of bad acting of which only a great actor is capable ... as the jealousy is transfused, the white man shows through" (Sunday Telegraph). A director recalls seeing it as a drama student: "It was fantastic, but I don't know whether I should have thought it was racist. I remember Vanessa Redgrave thought it was appalling."

The power relations in John Dexter's production also suffered due to Olivier's "heroic solo performance": "The lack of a fully realised Iago seriously impoverishes [it]" (Times). As Iago, Frank Finlay was "blotted out to vanishing point" (Standard); the FT said it was "choice miscasting". Maggie Smith, then Billie Whitelaw, were the dominated Desdemonas.

Could such a racially charged makeover - and skewed, Leavisite interpretation - be countenanced nowadays? Michael Attenborough, whose Othello (with Ray Fearon in the title role) opens on Wednesday at the RSC, believes that "the dominant figure is Iago: he's the architect of the play. You would unbalance the play if in you tried to premeditate a predominance of Othello over Iago. But people were yearning to see Olivier's Othello. That was the event."

Since 1964, the most obvious shift has been the casting, and Attenborough affirms that Othello should be played by a black actor. "A white actor playing Othello won't arrive again until black actors - and there's a very talented generation at the moment - are offered the roles conventionally played by white actors."


Fair is foul and foul is fair: Olivier in the 1965 film of his production