‘There’s a whole group of black actors who won’t do Othello’
American actor Peter Macon is playing Othello for the fourth time in the Abbey’s new production, and his love-hate relationship with the ‘problematic material’ is what keeps him coming back
Peter Macon as Othello, Rebecca O’Mara as Desdemona and Marty Rea as Iago in the Abbey’s Othello. Photograph: Pat Redmond
Joe Dowling: “It’s always struck me that there’s a kind of a fast-paced energy-driven thriller in there”
When veteran Abbey director Joe Dowling speaks about his latest production of Othello, you would be forgiven for thinking he was describing the latest Netflix drama for the binge-watch generation.
“I’ve done Othello a couple of times before,” he says (one notable New York production starred a purple-haired Christopher Walken as Iago), “and it’s always struck me that there’s a kind of a fast-paced, energy-driven thriller in there.”
Mindful of spoilers, he says, “Obviously if you don’t know the play at all, there’s a question of ‘Is Iago going to do all he says he’s going to do?’ . . . There’s so many points in the play where in fact – as in good thrillers – the villain is almost caught.”
If Netflix’s House of Cards draws on Shakespearean themes of ambition and revenge (and even gives the Iago-esque Underwood opportunity for soliloquy), and Fox’s Empire, a nod to King Lear, draws on quotes from the Bard for its episode titles (Out Damned Spot, The Devil Quotes Scripture), perhaps it is inevitable the circle of influence will come around again and modern productions of Shakespearean plays will draw on the popularity of these television shows to market their own take on the classics.
The Abbey’s production drives towards its inevitable conclusion in a suspenseful way. By the time Iago says, “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed”, the man behind me utters a loud “Jesus Christ” and bursts out laughing to break some tension.
But ultimately the tragedy is focused more on the domestic than the dynasty.
“The style of production strips the play back to its essentials,” Dowling says. “A lot of the subtext and subplots have been pushed aside to drive through to the Othello-Iago story.”
To further audience involvement in the conspiracy, Dowling put rows of seats on either side of the Abbey’s stage so they can watch a “master criminal at work”.
“Dare I say it, there’s an inflexibility about the Abbey stage. I think they’ve done wonders with the new auditorium but there’s a size and scale to it that when you actually have only two people on it . . . it’s very hard to get any intimacy.” Dowling felt this new arrangement “would give a focus to the space”, something that intimidated some of the actors initially, but “it produces a different kind of performance”.
As is so often the temptation with modern Shakespearean adaptations, Dowling resisted positioning the play in a particular place in history in order to “keep the focus on the text. If you don’t choose to play it in Elizabethan dress, then you have to find a period [and] then you have to justify that period. Ultimately that becomes more about the production than it does about the play.”
Dowling wants the audience to stop worrying about where they are. “It’s on the Abbey stage is where it is, and it’s a drama unfolding in front of you and you’re there – you’re part of it.”
In recent adaptations, through multi-ethnic casting, some directors have played down elements of race to interrogate the traditions of the play. What is the intention here?
“Race is a huge factor and it is a complicated issue,” says Dowling. Othello will always be an outsider – even the use of ‘Moor’, rather than his name, is an offensive way of treating him. However, in the litany of motives Iago uses for his treachery, Othello’s race is never mentioned.”
Dowling notes that “for an actor of colour, playing Othello can be a difficult experience. The actor has to avoid the danger of seeming very gullible in the face of Iago’s accusations.”
Although Dowling wanted his warrior Othello to be vulnerable in his love, “One of the things Peter [Macon, the American actor in the lead role] talked about a lot in rehearsal, and quite rightly so, was he did not want Othello to be a fool, easily duped”.
The fourth Othello
This is Macon’s fourth time playing Othello. “It’s the kind of play that lends itself to keep digging,” the actor says. He welcomes the chance to play to “an Irish ear”.
This production has a “sort of modern-y feel to it”, he says, which gave him room to play. “No one really knows where he’s from. The time before last I did it, it was very Game of Thrones-y: big epaulets and boots and swords”, and he played it with a “full-on mixture of a Moroccan and a sub-Saharan western African tonality”.
But here he’s playing against a Belfast-accented Iago, so “you only stretch it so far. I decided to ‘exotify’ him just a little bit”, to give a sense of the outsider. “If I just spoke in an American accent, I think it would be confusing and unfair to the world we’ve created.”
He has played the role in big outdoor theatres, but in the Abbey he can “really find vulnerable moments, whispering almost, just to pull people in. I look forward to seeing what happens – I’m still playing with it.”
How does Macon remove the barrier of Shakespearean language and make it feel real for the audience? “The only thing I can do is be absolutely clear about what I’m saying. I think there is a sort of intrinsic truth, even if we don’t really understand what specifically is being said. Like, I saw The Plough and the Stars here, and I saw Juno and the Paycock up at the Gate. It took, like, five minutes to really tune my ear, but once you’re in the world . . .”
He looks to the younger members of the audience to see how he’s doing. “That’s sort of my meter. Last week there were these two little boys, I think they might have been seven or eight years old – and they were with it.”
When I mention Dowling’s idea of Othello as a political thriller to Macon, he is unsure. “It can be. Sure. There’s racism riddled in the play . . .”
When Adrian Lester played Othello in the National Theatre in London, he said that for him racial themes did not dominate the play. Does Macon feel similarly? “That’s because it’s London, I would imagine. I think the cast was multi-ethnic. I think that given how it’s cast, it can be a play that’s not necessarily about race.”
Macon is reluctant to say that is the case here, when “I’m the only person in the play that’s not Irish”. He was curious to see how it would play in Ireland, “because it’s only, what, in the past 10 years or so that people have been immigrating here. There’s a lot of great things, obviously, like culture sharing. But then I think Europe in general is dealing with the Syrian crisis and then refugees pouring in. Places that have not had to deal with ‘the other’, how does that work? I was really curious to see.”
Macon sees the racism of the play concentrated in the first scenes. “You have Barbary horse, old black ram, sooty bosom. But once they get to Cyprus, then it’s just about jealousy and love and insecurity and misogyny and power structures and innocence lost and confusion and self-doubt and all that stuff. There’s plenty to work with besides the race.”
Macon wrestles with his own suspicions about “this English guy who writes this play about this Moorish guy who we don’t know where he’s from, and he gets duped by this Venetian white guy and he’s supposed to be this great general and he’s supposed to be super-smart. Sometimes I don’t know if I like this play. I go back and forth. I’m like, I hate this f***ing play; I love this play. Actors like Sidney Poitier and my friend Harry Lennix, there’s a whole group of actors who won’t do this play.”
There have been some questionable performances over the years. “I can tell you the one I absolutely hate the most. It’s the Laurence Olivier one. I want to smack his face. And Orson Welles is so ridiculous. They put on black face. But it’s dated, it’s just like the time . . . so silly, so silly.”
So how does he reconcile those conflicting feelings he has?
With a booming laugh, he says it’s a love-hate situation for him. “I keep coming back to it is because in the middle of this play is an amazing and tragic love story. As an actor, it’s great to have material that is problematic that you have to sort out, because otherwise I would never be able to do this play four times.”
Macon is honoured to be the first to play the role in the Abbey, “That means a whole lot to me. And I think about Ira Aldridge [the first African American to tour Europe with Othello in the 1800s] and even James Baldwin, who’s one of my favourite writers. The pioneer spirit . . . I get to feel a little bit like a pioneer.”
He doesn’t want to blow his own trumpet, he says, doing a little trumpet-playing impression. “But it is very significant for me, and it’s such a joy.”
- Othello runs at the Abbey until June 11th