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My Shakespeare: David Harewood on Othello

Updated Tuesday, 5th August 2014

David Harewood was the first black actor to play Othello on the stage of the National Theatre in England. Now he explores whether prejudices of different centuries have changed our views.

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David Harewood Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Sky / Blakeway Productions

About the episode

David Harewood was, astonishingly, the first black actor to play the great Moorish/Venetian General, Othello, on the stage of the National Theatre in England. Now he returns to the play to discover how the prejudices of different centuries have changed our views.

He finds out about the Moorish Ambassador who visited the court of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s day and may well have inspired Shakespeare. Certainly Shakespeare’s view of this character was complex and he was more concerned with the sense of “otherness” than he was with his colour. David goes on to meet the National Theatre’s latest Othello, Adrian Lester and he discovers that Adrian has also starred in a play about Ira Aldridge, the 19th Cetury American actor who was the first black man ever to play the role.

David watches many different Othellos, including the notorious Laurence Olivier version from the 1960s.

What they seemed to object to was that he was what they called a ‘genuine n****r’” - David Harewood 

Othello is a play not dominated by race but by love, and by a great “villain” – Iago.  A forensic psychiatrist from Broadmoor analyses this extraordinary psychopath and how he manipulates our hero by persuading him that his new young wife is having an affair with a friend and colleague. David meets Simon Russel Beale who played Iago to his own Othello and then re-examines the lethal relationship.

Imogen Stubbs, who played the role of Desdemona, the young and innocent wife in Trevor Nunn’s film of the play, revisits the role and Sir Ian Mckellan, who played Iago in that same film, talks about the malignant character of the man. Actors at the Globe Theatre rehearse some of the most famous scenes and discover how Iago insinuates himself into the mind of Othello.

Finally, driven insane by the “virus” that is Iago, Othello kills his wife Desdemona. And then realising the truth of how he had been manipulated, he kills himself. This is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies that reveals how the “green-eyed monster**” of jealousy (**Shakespeare’s own description of it in this play) can lay waste to everything it touches.

My Shakespeare starts on Monday 22nd September at 9pm on Sky Arts 1 HD.




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