Can it be wrong to `black up' for Othello?

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The Independent Online
A remarkable event is taking place at the National Theatre this week - a production of Shakespeare's Othello. The National's new artistic director, Trevor Nunn, says he is keen on rediscovering neglected classics. Well, Othello is certainly one.

This new production is the first at the National since Paul Scofield played the Moor in 1980. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, where one might expect the play to be performed every few seasons, Ben Kingsley starred in the last main-house production, in 1985. There have been assorted Macbeths, Hamlets and King Lears in the intervening years at both companies. But the fourth of Shakespeare's great tragedies has become the play that dare not speak its name.

To the consternation of directors, actors, audiences and students who have Othello as an examination text nearly every year, one of the most famous works in the English language has become a victim of political correctness. The heads of our national companies have been too scared to put it on.

The reason, of course, is the fear of outraging liberal opinion by having a white actor "black up". And with an apparent shortage of black actors well known enough for the role, the play is simply neglected. The RSC did put on a studio production a few years back with the gifted black opera singer Willard White in the title role. Yet, though Mr White was publicised as being a talented actor, in addition to his undoubted international reputation as a a singer, he has not taken a straight stage-acting role since.

Last year, the RSC's artistic director, Adrian Noble, who is desperate himself to direct the play for the first time, made an approach to black Hollywood film star Morgan Freeman to play Othello in Stratford-upon- Avon. But it was rejected. Few Hollywood agents are likely to allow their clients to spend a year working at the pay rates dictated by British subsidised theatre.

So the RSC, the company set up to perform Shakespeare's plays, will continue not to stage one of his most important, powerful and poetic works. The National, for the first time in 17 years, is at last staging the play. David Harewood, a young black actor, may prove to be a triumph in the title role. But, let us be honest, no white actor with a similar background would be playing the lead in a Shakespeare tragedy at the NT. Harewood, 32, has never yet acted in a national company or West End play, but has starred in British regional theatre and in Antony and Cleopatra off Broadway. Meanwhile, the role is barred at the highest level to every white actor in the country.

Many would argue that there is a good reason for this. Namely, that it is offensive to black people to see a white actor put on dark make-up and pretend to be black. Not only is it politically and culturally offensive, with hazy memories of The Black and White Minstrel Show with its Uncle Tom gestures; it is also offensive because Equity has a disproportionate number of unemployed black actors on its books. How galling it would be for them, let alone the black community as a whole, to see a white actor transform himself into a black man.

It is a powerful argument. But the theatre is not real life. It is a place for artifice, which depends on disguise and dressing up. The disguising of a white actor for the role of the Moor is a 400-year-old tradition. Tradition does not justify something that is morally wrong. But is it really morally wrong to do this in the sphere of acting, where pretence is of the essence?

The argument that white playing black is not realistic has even less force as we live in an era where women can play Shakespearean kings (Fiona Shaw as Richard II and Kathryn Hunter as King Lear, most recently).

We also live in an era, thank heavens, of more multiracial casting than ever before. Audiences for Shakespeare are at last becoming colour-blind. Black actors and actresses play Plantagenet princes and princesses. There are still not enough on stage; but qualms about naturalism have all but faded.

Except when it comes to this one role. This self-imposed reticence on the part of white theatre directors - significantly not provoked as far, as one can tell, by any requests from the black community - means that we do not have a chance to see leading, experienced, white actors take on one of the most challenging parts, or indeed enable those actors to measure themselves in theatrical history against earlier Othellos, including Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Perhaps the root of the trouble lies with Olivier. His portrayal of Othello for the National Theatre in the Sixties, which I was privileged to see at a very young age, was a magnificent and memorable triumph. The streets outside the NT were filled with sleeping bags as the queues built up to see the next night's performance.

But time has added a politically incorrect dimension to Olivier's performance. The comedian Harry Enfield has parodied it. And the present National Theatre director, the brilliant Richard Eyre, described Olivier's performance as "barely risible". That most certainly was not the view of audiences at the time.

Another puzzling aspect of this debate is that no one has ever criticised Placido Domingo, who blacks up regularly at the Royal Opera House to sing in Verdi's Otello. Why is a white man singing the role permissible, but acting it beyond the pale?

In academic circles there is growing unease with the bar on white actors playing the part. Professor Stanley Wells, director of the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University, says: "There is a large element of political correctness in the feeling that it's somehow wrong to cast anyone but a black actor in the role. I think myself something is lost by it. The play deals in the paradoxes of black and white. Iago is white outside but `black' inside ... Further, it's a great shame to deprive white actors of one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire. I would like to see Brian Cox in the role, for example."

Others argue that the ideal position is for many more black actors to gain sufficient experience and stature to be able to play the role. We certainly need more black actors and actresses at every level. But this, too, misses the point - that Othello is a role that should be a career peak for every performer.

Theatre can have enormous social and political impact on our lives. But it remains a performance. It should not be bedevilled by the pressures of political correctness. And the National's current Othello must not be the last for yet another decade by our national companies. It is time to reclaim this play for regular performance, and by our greatest actors, be they black or white.