Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

How now, Othello ?

Dipping into that Shakespeare backlog (6 HAMLETs, 4 MACBETHs, Olivier as Shylock, Welles as Falstaff, etc) finally, we get to see Laurence Olivier's powerhouse performance as OTHELLO, a National Theatre success in the early Sixties, when Billie Whitelaw and Maggie Smith alterated the role of Desdemona, but it is Smith in the film. All director Stuart Burge really had to do I imagine was let the cameras roll and capture this astonishing performance for posterity. Its stagebound of course, originally directed on stage by John Dexter, but is shot in widescreen so it looks good. This is my first OTHELLO and its rather ponderous as the characters spout reams of dialogue, but we watch for the performances. That National Theatre rep company shine here: Frank Finlay as Iago, Derek Jacobi as Cassio, Joyce Redman, Sheila Reid  Maggie Smith is a touching Desdemona and Olivier in his middle age - a decade after his RICHARD III (Olivier label), and almost two decades after his HAMLET - is simply amazing. The energy it must have taken to perform this on stage every night, as well as running the National Theatre, and then the film. (He also filmed BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING and KHARTOUM about that time, also blacked up as The Madhi for some very effective scenes - Olivier label)

IMDB's summary puts it thus: Desdemona defies her father to marry the Moor of Venice, the mighty warrior, Othello. But Othello's old lieutenant, Iago, doesn't like Othello, and is determined to bring about the downfall of Othello's new favorite, Cassio, and destroy Othello in the process, by casting aspersions on Othello's new bride. 

Paul Robeson was by all accounts (it was not filmed) a brilliant Othello in the 1930s, and later actors to tackle it include Laurence Fishburne in 1995, Anthony Hopkins for the BBC, and of course Orson Welles' in 1952, another fascinating production, made on a shoestring. I shall be looking at that too before too long, I had a vhs cassette of it somewhere ... I wish I had seen more of those 1960s National Theatre productions, particularly their HAY FEVER, but I did see that astonishing ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN at the Old Vic, up in the gods, in 1966, where Robert Stephens was that incredible Inca king in an unforgettable production, and in 1970 Smith and Stephens in Ingmar Berman's production of HEDDA and their restoration comedy THE BEAU'S STRATAGEM, both of which I went to twice. 
OTHELLO isn't an easy view, hardly a play to like (unlike HAMLET and the others) but each generation of rising actors want to give their reading of Iago's jealousy and portray the Moor.  

It seems Maggie Smith was feuding with Olivier (left, on set) during the production, and one evening she stuck her head around his dressing room door as he was either putting on or washing off the black make-up and said "How how brown cow?"! Shakespeare as far as we know never went to Italy, but set several of his plays there ...


  1. Another fine review Michael. I have always rated Olivier's performance here though it was essentially filmed theatre. I watched the Welles version recently with darling Michael Mc as Iago, (and to think I said No!). Cinematically superb if much abridged.

  2. Orson's one is marvellously shot, very cinematic, unlike this rather ponderous stage version which could have done with some pruning of the text....