Richard Twyman's production of Othello opens with an Islamic marriage ceremony, during which the titular character unfurls a prayer mat for him and Desdemona to sit on. This bold departure from the original text forces us to ask: what would change if the focus of Othello was on him as an active, practising Muslim?
Twyman's touring production of Shakespeare's tragedy arrives for a brief run at Dubai Opera on Wednesday. The question over religion isn't a new one; debate has raged for centuries over the Moorish general's faith, and his Muslim background has long been implied. But Twyman's adaptation takes that further, focusing on the implications of this in the ultra-conservative Venetian state where the play is set.
Life and art imitating each other
The significance of religion is perhaps less about the practicalities of daily life and more about the psychological impact on Othello of concealing such an important part of his identity. In this production, he is forced to wear an ostentatious crucifix around his neck as a form of disguise – a heavy cross to bear, if you like. Another layer of confusion and tumult has been foisted upon a character already wrestling with his emotions. A tragedy made even more tragic.
"Who is he really?" asks Victor Oshin, the British actor who plays Othello. "He has had to change and hide certain aspects of himself to survive. There are times when he just covers it all up and times when he's extremely taken over by his mind."
Twyman, artistic director of English Touring Theatre, also encourages us to examine the contemporary implications of a play first performed in 1604. He is holding a mirror up to our own society, which remains divided across religious and cultural fault lines.
In an interview last year, Twyman recalled rehearsing the play at the time that United States President Donald Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. "Life and art were very much imitating each other," he said. Creative advisor Abdul-Rehman Malik goes even further, saying that this production "offers a searing critique of xenophobia and patriarchy, empire and privilege". In short, it couldn't be more relevant today.
This point was certainly picked up on in the glut of glowing reviews that accompanied Twyman's production when it toured the United Kingdom in 2017 and 2018. "[The] tragedy springs from the blindness of a state run by sleek-suited, microphone-hugging men confident about who is one of us, and who isn't," Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian.
'It was extremely daunting'
Othello is a Muslim general leading an army against a Turkish invasion. He marries Desdemona in a secretive, Islamic ceremony. From here, the narrative is familiar. Othello is tricked by his bitter ensign, Iago, into thinking that his wife has been unfaithful, and, driven mad by jealousy, destroys everything around him.
Playing Othello requires a subtle combination of brutality and vulnerability, fierce pride mixed with pitiful anguish. There can be few more intimidating parts for an actor to take on, particularly one who only recently graduated from drama school and is making his professional stage debut.
"It was extremely daunting," admits Oshin, 27, who first took on the role late last year. "But I knew this production had done well before, so I was stepping in and following the tide." He pauses, then corrects himself. "I was also really wanting to add my own stance, so it was fun to have that little tussle."
Oshin explained in an interview last year, prior to the UK tour, how he wanted to portray the character. "This Othello speaks to anyone who has felt oppressed or ostracised because of their differences – be it race, disability, sex, background, sexual orientation – and felt they couldn't speak about their injustice," he said. "So they may feel they have to hide a part of themselves to navigate freely and without duress."
The set design offers no hiding place for the actors. White strip-lighting illuminates a sparse stage, that, according to reviews, at times represents a cage or a boxing ring. "You get down to the nitty-gritty of the characters and the emotion and dynamism between us," says Oshin.
Coming to Dubai
For the run at Dubai Opera, a number of cast members have been replaced, including Iago and Desdemona. This adds new intrigue – will Oshin be able to recapture the chemistry? When I speak to him, the cast are in their first week of rehearsals and he sounds optimistic. "What we're doing at the moment is enjoying the words," he says. "I'm excited to see what we can build."
To put it mildly, this is all a far cry from how Oshin expected his life to turn out. As a teenager, he showed great potential as an athlete, particularly in javelin, and was mentored by Tessa Sanderson, an Olympic gold medallist javelin thrower. At the age of 15, however, Oshin suffered an injury, breaking his collar bone and dislocating his shoulder. "I felt I had lost my place ahead of everyone else," he says.
A drama teacher at his school suggested that he try acting instead. "I realised I could do it, even if my eyes were closed," he says. "Someone could say a line to me and I could learn it. And my injury didn't matter."
After leaving school, Oshin joined the National Youth Theatre and was accepted into the Academy of Live and Recording Arts (ALRA) but dropped out after the first year. "It didn't really fit me," he says.
Oshin continued to act and, a couple of years later, he received a message from his director at ALRA that read: "Do you want to finish what you started here?" Oshin laughs. "I went back, finished drama school and my first job was Othello."
Moving from the athletics field to the stage might seem an unlikely journey but there are similarities between them. "As an athlete, you train and do the competition," says Oshin. "As an actor, you rehearse and do your shows. It's a cool parallel."
The disciplines are also physically demanding. He describes himself as “drained, emotionally strained and knackered” when he comes off stage after playing Othello.
Oshin isn’t complaining, though. “In life, you have to put in a lot of hard work and training to get where you want to get,” he says. “Othello goes through it once; I have to go through it every night.” He laughs again. “I love it.”
Othello is at Dubai Opera from Wednesday until Saturday. Further information and bookings at www.dubaiopera.com