Life in this hood is savage, yo! Salty language and adult themes ahead. Proceed with caution.
Robeson himself enjoyed playing Othello, and it became his signature role for the remainder of his career. As Ellis notes, “For Robeson, it was more than just a part: it was, as he once said, ‘killing two birds with one stone. I’m acting and I’m talking for the negroes in the way only Shakespeare can.'”
Despite the positive reception of an African-American actor in the role, the Oscar-nominated 1965 production (the highest number for a Shakespeare film in history) starring Sir Laurence Olivier and a very young Dame Maggie Smith as Desdemona reverted to type: The famous English actor played the role in makeup. This was the first cinematic Othello to be shot using color film, and Oliver was as meticulous about that as he was about developing the physical character through a deep voice and a special walk. He stated in an interview with Life magazine in 1964 that, “The whole [makeup] will be in the lips and the colour. I’ve been looking at Negroes lips every time I see them on the train or anywhere, and actually, their lips seems black or blueberry-coloured, really, rather than red. But of course the variations are enormous. I’ll just use a little tiny touch of lake and a lot more brown and a little mauve.”
But as well-received as the production was by the Oscar crowd, its release during the height of the Civil Rights Movement dampened its reception with audiences. Arongundade remarks that “…[Olivier’s] blackface portrayal troubled American critics when the film opened there in 1966…sensitivities about black identity were at their height, and many saw Olivier’s chosen aesthetic as outdated.”
Perhaps the pushback against the Olivier production opened the door for the now generally-accepted casting of an African-American actor in the role. Famous Othellos of the last several decades include theater luminaries like James Earl Jones, Oscar-nominated actor Laurence Fishburne in a stellar 1995 production starring Kenneth Branagh as Iago and French actress Irene Jacob as Desdemona, and young actor Mekhi Phifer in “O,” a contemporary version that transforms the military conflict into a basketball rivalry set in a high school. Other famous actors who have played Othello include Orson Welles, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Eamonn Walker in a 2001 TV movie co-starring Christopher Eccleston (best known as the ninth Doctor Who) as Iago, which transplants the action from Venice and Cyprus to a London police station.
Modern theater companies wishing to explore the themes of Othello in new ways have explored variant casting. A 1997 production of the play in Baltimore starred Patrick Stewart as Othello, the lone white actor in a racially-flipped cast in which every other actor was African-American. Stewart, pictured here with Patrice Johnson as Desdemona, explained, “One of my hopes for this production is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice… To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism.” A review in the Baltimore Sun said, “It is a tribute to the concept as well as Stewart’s performance that the initial awkwardness falls away as early as his second scene…Stewart, who possesses a calm assuredness at the start of the play, lets the theater’s predominantly white audience experience how completely foreign Othello must have felt in a society where he was viewed as the outsider.”
Speaking of foreign: A German production at the Deutsches Theatre in 2001 pushed the boundaries of the character by not only casting a white actor as Othello, but a female one. This more avant-garde production starring actress Susanne Wolff sees Wolff utter her lines in varying costumes progressing from a simple black-and-white shirt and pants ensemble to—believe it or not—a gorilla suit intended to show Othello’s shift from loving partner to a more animalistic creature bent on vengeance. Blogger/reviewer Andrew Haydon says about the production, “Okay, there are two headlines to choose from here: 1) I’ve just seen the best production of Othello I’ve ever seen. 2) I’ve just seen a production of Othello in which Othello is played by a white woman in a gorilla costume. My job, then, is to explain how (2) manages to be (1).”
Ben Arungodade, “What Was Othello’s Race?” and “The 18 Most Memorable Othello Actors Performances”
Baltimore Sun review of Sir Patrick Stewart Othello
Jerry Brotton, “Is This the Real Model for Othello?”
Samantha Ellis, “Paul Robeson in Othello, Savoy Theatre, 1930”
Emily Anne Gibson, “The Face of Othello”
Andrew Haydon, “Othello – Deutsches Theatre”
Othello Relating His Adventures to Desdemona by Carl Ludwig Friedrich Becker, 1880.