Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Othello with David Harewood

I just watched the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about Othello, hosted by David Harewood.

Don't miss it! It's great!

David Harewood

David Harewood with Simon Russell Beale

Othello is a truly powerful play, one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. It is one I think many audiences overlook, perhaps thinking that the story is so old that there is nothing new in it to be found.

David Harewood does a terrific job of exploring the story, the characters, and the historical significance of the play, and giving us a fresh look at this 400 year old play.

Mr. Harewood, arguably most famous for his role as David Estes in the Showtime series Homeland, is a great guide for this documentary.

As Othello with Simon Russell Beale as Iago, 1997

He was the first black actor to play the part of Othello at the National Theatre in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes. 

As Othello, 1997

He played the Prince of Morocco in Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, in 2004. He was great as Oberon in Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn, which I saw -- my review here.

As Oberon, with Kathryn Hunter as Puck, 2013

With Tina Benko as Titania

It's great to see him talk with actors like Simon Russell Beale, who played Iago with him in 1997, and Adrian Lester, who played Othello at the National Theatre in a rather disappointing 2013 production -- my review here

There are many clips of past Othello film and stage productions. This is one of my favorite parts of the Shakespeare Uncovered series, when you get to compare the actors through the ages, and see what choices they made in their interpretations of the roles.

The 1990 RSC TV production, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago and Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona, is very simply staged, but the performances look excellent. 

Willard White with Ian McKellen, 1990

Ian McKellen, who is so good as the wise and righteous Gandalf, really excels at playing despicable characters!

Also included are clips of white actors who played Othello in blackface make-up, such as Orson Welles in his 1952 film, and Anthony Hopkins as Othello, with Bob Hoskins as Iago, in the 1981 TV production. 

Athony Hopkins with Bob Hoskins, 1981

I liked how David Harewood both complimented Sir Laurence Olivier's talent as an actor but also criticised his portrayal, in blackface, of Othello in the 1965 film version. It is refreshing to hear one artist review another artist's performance. 

Laurence Olivier with Frank Finlay as Iago, 1965

But it also shows that culturally the image we have of the character of Othello is evolving. It is never the same.

The production I would love to hear more about, and have seen footage of is from 1997. Patrick Stewart played Othello as white, with the black Patrice Johnson as Desdemona (she was great in the recent Tamburlaine at Theatre For A New Audience I saw) and all of the other white characters were played by black actors, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C. 

It was an idea of Stewart's, and a role he had dreamed playing since he was 14 years old! I think it might be the first race-reversed "photo-negative" production of the play.

Patrick Stewart as Othello with Patrice Johnson as Desdemona, 1997

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the documentary is the discussion of the actor Ira Aldridge, who was the first black actor to play Othello on a London stage, in 1825.

I don't want to ruin the story for you about his production of Othello. It is incredible.

Ira Aldridge, 1867

This part of the documentary is presented by Mr. Harewood and Adrian Lester, who portrayed Ira Aldridge in a play about his career, and I loved how these two actors discuss this not-so-ancient history on a theatre stage. It is a wonderful symbol of how these two great actors are carrying on such a historical and crucially significant theatrical tradition. 

David Harewood with Adrian Lester

My only criticism of this wonderful documentary is that it spends so little time on the original historical context in which Shakespeare wrote the play, and does not explore why he might have written it. 

It does mention that in 1600, an ambassador from Morocco, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud visited the court of Queen Elizabeth, and this exotic Moorish figure may have been inspired Shakespeare when he wrote the Othello play.

The Moroccan ambassador, painted in 1600

In the process of writing my forthcoming version of Othello, I have found much more to the story of why and when Shakespeare wrote this play. In fact, I have discovered what might be the true reason why Shakespeare invented the name Othello -- a name with no historical or literary precedent before Shakespeare -- in the first place. I wrote about my theory here.

I think the story behind the play is as fascinating as the play itself, and it's a shame there was not more time spent on that angle.

But, I do strongly recommend this documentary. Even if you are very familiar with Othello, it has much to offer, and may surprise you.

The Shakespeare Uncovered series is available here on DVD:

And you can get the first season of Shakespeare Uncovered here:


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