“We were entering one of the most dangerous areas of discussion you can have,” says Richard Twyman about his version of Othello which depicts the character as a practising Muslim.
It was a danger he embraced fully because of the “extreme fear of the Islamic” that has pervaded society.
“Even as we were rehearsing Donald Trump’s Muslim ban came into force,” said the director who brings the English Touring Theatre to Wilton’s Music Hall from Tuesday, May 16 to June 3.
“It felt like looking at Othello through that lens made it as urgent as possible and as dangerous for an audience as it was when it was first written.”
His first experience of Othello was during his A-levels aged 17 and he related to the “extremity of the emotion and jealousy that Othello goes through”.
In 2003 and in his early 20s he experienced the play as an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company and was impressed by Iago’s ability to “see society in a different way and manoeuvre people around him”.
When he picked it up 12 years later to work on a modern-day production for Tobacco Factory in Bristol he was struck by just one word. Moor.
The 36-year-old had just finished a role with the international department of Royal Court Theatre, working with writers from Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon, and said: “Suddenly I was able to see this thing I hadn’t been able to before.
“Othello is constantly referred to as the Moor, it must be at least 100 times. But because it is so common in the play I had always skipped over it. Moor in Elizabethan England was synonymous with Muslim.
“That really stopped me in my tracks because I had never seen that reading or interpretation of the play before.
“The Venice that he would have lived in would not have allowed him to be an open practising Muslim so we take the idea that only Desdemona would have known.
“In our version he says in public he has converted to Catholicism as it is the only way he can get ahead but privately he is still a Muslim, at first.
“It is his later rejection of his spirituality that allows him to do the hateful crime he does.”
For Richard it all hung on the pivotal scene in which Iago turns Othello’s love for Desdemona to hatred.
“We have interpreted it that he reject his personal spirituality which up until that point was a great form of solace.
“He decides to embrace Venice and buy into the patriarchy of that world rather than something being revealed in him which was always there.
“So what you are watching is not a Muslim kill his wife but a man who has been deeply traumatised by the world he is living in.”
He added:“It seems like we are living in the moment and the events of the play, the casual racism and him having to assimilate in society and play by its rules to get ahead, and how that affects his mental health and allows window for Iago to sneak in.
“These things are happening all the time as our culture moves towards a greater fear of those who look or sound different.
“The play has never been more resonant.”
Wilton’s Music Hall, Whitechapel, Tuesday, May 16 to June 3, £15-25
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