Interview: `Othello' comes into his own at National

A co-production of `Othello' between the German director Peter Stein and Sam Mendes of the National Theatre offers both a fascinating contrast in cultural approaches and some surprising similarities
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Peter Stein and Sam Mendes come from very different worlds. Stein, 60, former director of the Berlin Schaubuhne and one of Germany's most influential theatre directors, is now facing an uncertain future, unloved in his own country, regarded as "reactionary" in Salzburg, where he is shortly to be replaced as Theatre Director of the summer festival. Sam Mendes, meanwhile, is the 32-year-old English wunderkind who, since he took over the Donmar Warehouse five years ago, has barely put a foot wrong.

Stein has been following Mendes's career closely for some time. He first invited him to work in Salzburg as long ago as 1993, but it was only last month that Mendes finally arrived to make his festival debut with a production of Shakespeare's Othello, staged in a converted salt factory, that will also mark Stein's farewell to Salzburg. A co-production between the festival and our own National Theatre (where it opens tonight), Mendes's Othello offers both a fascinating contrast in cultural approaches and some surprising similarities.

Stein, it turns out, considers most English Shakespeare productions little more than "museum" pieces. "I have never seen an English Shakespeare production that is not old-fashioned," he says to me as we head across a heat-filled square to his office in the Festpielhaus. We have just been attending a public noon-day "dialogue" with Mendes and his Othello cast: David Harewood (Othello), Claire Skinner (Desdemona), Simon Russell Beale (Iago). The discussion was dominated by English reverence for text. Stein clearly can't understand how keeping to the metre and verse can be, as Skinner puts it, "liberating"; or how playing it partly as an outpost of 1940s British colonialism, as Mendes has done, can be seen as "modern".

Faced with Stein's "attack", Mendes is even more self-critical: "We're obsessed in Britain with heritage," he says. "Shakespeare is one of the few things that makes us feel secure and successful."

But modernity is, perhaps, all in the eye of the beholder - to do with nuance, interpretation, cultural references. Mendes's production, more militaristic than any I can remember - with a brilliant second-half barracks scene - has caught an acute sense of colonial Englishness with distinct, if distant, echoes for Austrian audiences of their own recent past.

Yet this is an Othello that, for British audiences, will also carry its own contemporary frisson, reflecting as it does a multi-culturalism that is non-existent on the Continent.

It's over a decade since the National Theatre last staged Othello, with Paul Scofield in the title role. Since then, new cultural sensitivities over "blacking up" have almost driven one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies off the British stage. The RSC last gave the play as long ago as 1989, when Willard White, the Jamaican bass - who, coincidentally, last night became English National Opera's first black Flying Dutchman - was co-opted to play the Moor. Since then, neither of our national companies has staged the piece. David Harewood's appearance tonight, as the first black actor ever to play the part at the National, is thus something of a historic event.

"We don't sell it enough," says Harewood himself, "this black British heritage of actors who've been classically trained in British theatre, in cinema, in television. It's all seeped in to the white culture as well - and now you've got white comedians delivering comedy in a black way, white kids on the street talking in a black way. It's an amazing melting pot."

We are sitting under a striped awning in the courtyard of the Perner- Insel Theatre in Hallein, a few miles outside Salzburg. Once upon a time, it was a salt factory; now, thanks to Stein, it's been reborn as a theatre.

The previous night, at the preview, a packed, typically well-dressed, well-heeled Salzburg crowd had given Harewood and the Othello company a rousing reception. These are people who take their "kultur" seriously, as Simon Russell Beale puts it. Yet the Perner-Insel's rough-and-ready wooden exterior stands in stark contrast to an audience whose city is a by-word for baroque splendour.

Once inside, though, the auditorium itself turns out to be cool, unornamented and wondrously functional - a vast rectangular shed with perfect sight- lines, in which Anthony Ward's single, three-arched set seems almost dwarfed, and totally different in atmosphere to the box-shaped Cottesloe Theatre in which the company had first previewed the piece before travelling to Salzburg. Acoustically, it knocks spots off the National's "purpose-built" auditorium.

How did they manage this, I later ask Stein. "All you have to do is take away the echo," he says with a shrug. "We did it with black curtains."

Back under the awning, I wonder how Harewood is enjoying being in overwhelmingly "white" Austria? "It has made me feel isolated," admits the 31-year-old from Birmingham. "It is painful. But being the only black face has also been a good experience. In some ways, it has changed my performance."

The disparity has only served to reinforce Harewood's sense of being an outsider, eerily apt for playing Othello, a man whose tragedy Mendes and Harewood see as having been to try to "buy into" a society that he thinks he is part of, yet which, under pressure, leaves him cruelly exposed.

For Russell Beale, playing Iago has its pain too: "He's the nastiest character I've ever played," he declares.

He likes, though, Mendes's colonial setting of the play. It's close to his own background: he was born in Malaya, brought up in Singapore (where his father was an army doctor) and understands the "claustrophobia of tight military communities... the desperate homesickness and sense of displacement".

Backstage, the National's stage management team and company manager, John Caulfield, are luxuriating in Austrian efficiency and on-site washing machines. They've also just heard that Genista Mackintosh is to return to the National after her brief, bruising stint at the Royal Opera House. Joy all round. Why, I ask? "Because she's accessible," says one.

"Because she knows who we are," says another. "She's strict but fair," says a third.

The night before, Caulfield, like everyone else, had been struck by the Salzburg audience's sheer intensity of concentration. Harold Pinter would have been pleased, he drily observes. (Pinter, famously, has labelled London audiences's habitual coughing fits as "acts of aggression".)

Back under the awning, Harewood worries about how his role may be reinforcing black stereotypes. Will they think, "Oh, he's just a crazy black man"?

"I've got to keep faith with what I'm trying to do," he says, "which is to show the how of Othello's downfall - what Iago's doing to this man, rather than what's happening to him."

Harewood needn't worry. At the "public dialogue" session the following day, a bearded questioner asks with genuine concern and delicate Austrian decorousness: "Tell me, please, I am having more moments of sympathy for Othello than for Desdemona. Should I see a psychiatrist?"

"Not yet," quips Mendes.

`Othello' opens at the Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre, 7pm tonight, then 10-15 Oct. Booking: 0171-928 2252

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