Richard Tywman’s direction of Othello made what Shakespeare left implicit, explicit. Othello (Abraham Popoola) was Muslim. Shakespeare’s title, Othello – The Moor of Venice, paradoxically leaves much to be interpreted regarding its tragic hero’s ethnic origin and religious beliefs.
It is contested whether, during Shakespeare’s time, the term ‘Moor’ was used to refer to black people from North Africa, or if it also encompassed a religious belief in Islam. Later, the term signified 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 not as evident. It is suggested that he has converted to Christianity, assimilating the religion of the Venetian state.
However, Tobacco Factory Theatres production emphasised Othello’s Islamic faith, having the play begin with a beautiful yet private marriage to Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden). The couple speak in Arabic as they exchange their vows, twirling his mother’s token handkerchief around them.
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 performance of the final scene entirely stole the show. It is usually common knowledge that Shakespeare’s tragedies, by definition, must end in death. I hope it does not come as a spoiler when i tell that Othello's death ties in well with the theme of underlying religious conflict. You will have to see it! Presumably, Twyman wanted to present the religious pretence Othello must uphold in order to live in Venetian society and lead battles against the Ottoman Empire – which is then taken advantage of by Iago (Mark Lockyer) – who cultivates a jealousy within him from the position of a trusted friend.
Venice and its European geography are in no way a foil to Cyprus where the battle is fought, or 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.