Richard Tywman’s direction made what Shakespeare left implicit, explicit. Othello (Abraham Popoola) was Muslim. Shakespeare’s title, Othello – The Moor of Venice, unexpectedly leaves much to be interpreted regarding its tragic hero’s ethnicity and religious beliefs.
Whether the term 'Moor' was used in Shakespeare's time to describe black people from North Africa or it also included a religious belief in Islam is a contested issue. Later on, we know the term referred to Muslims who originated from north-western Africa of Berber and Arab descent.
While Shakespeare’s script makes Othello’s skin colour easier to determine - the play begins with Iago telling Lord Brabantio that an ‘old black ram / is tupping your white ewe' (his daughter Desdemona) - Othello’s religion is nowhere near as evident. The most common view is that Othello has converted to Christianity and assimilated the Venetian state's prescribed religion.
However, Tobacco Factory Theatres production emphasised Othello's Islamic belief. Beginning with a private marriage to Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden), the couple speak Arabic when they exchange their vows, twirling Othello's token handkerchief around their embrace.
Twyman did well to amplify the internal religious conflict Othello must negotiate. The current cultural climate: Trump placing a ban on citizens from seven majority Muslim nations entering America, the Conservative attitudes that pervade responses to the migration crisis, the feeling in the wake of anti-immigration Brexit rhetoric, the constant references in the media to ‘Islamic Extremism’. We are very much at a time whereby Islam is being figured as ‘Other’ by the West.
The final scene stole the show entirely. It is usually common knowledge that Shakespearean tragedy, by definition, must end in death. Therefore, I hope it comes as no surprise when I say Othello commits suicide, and in this performance he uses his cross necklace. The tragic death draws upon the religious conflict our hero must negotiate and his race which renders him 'Other' by the European state.
Perhaps Twyman wanted to present the religious pretence Othello must uphold in order to live in Venetian society and lead battles against the Ottoman Empire. An insecurity which is then taken advantage of by Iago, (Mark Lockyer), who cultivates Othello's jealousy from the position of a trusted friend.
Venice and its European geography are by no means a foil to Cyprus where the battle is fought, nor Northwest Africa where Othello is believed to originate. Instead, it is a place of xenophobia and misogyny. A place Iago represents the heart of. This play is about corruption in all societies and the human tendency to fear what is unknown.
Elena Angelides, Theatre Editor.
Photography Credit: The Other Richard.
Othello is showing at The Tobacco Factory from now until April 1st. For tickets and exact show times click here.