Sunday 18 February 2018

Theatre: It has been an anxious week for John Breen . . . in more plays than one

Class hatred: Chris Obi as Othello with John Cronin as Iago
Class hatred: Chris Obi as Othello with John Cronin as Iago

Colin Murphy

Last night, John Breen's play Alone It Stands played the huge Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. That would be a daunting prospect for any writer, particularly one of a play that started life playing in rugby clubs. But when we spoke earlier in the week, Breen was also hoping that amongst the audience for his play about Munster's 1978 triumph over the All Blacks might be . . . the All Blacks.

And yet, when we spoke, it wasn't the prospect of a clash of hakas that was keeping Breen awake at night. Instead, it was a 400-year-old play that had got inside his skull.

Breen's production of Othello for the Second Age Theatre Company opened this week at the Helix in Dublin and runs until Friday (see Othello is perhaps the most visceral of Shakespeare's tragedies.

"Nowhere else in Shakespeare do we hold our breath in such anxiety and for so long," wrote AC Bradley, one of the great Shakespearian critics. It has been giving Breen nightmares. At the climax of the play (plot spoiler alert), Othello kills his wife, Desdemona. "Every time we stage the murder, it gets more shocking," says Breen.

There are two novelties about Breen's production. Firstly, the play is being produced without Arts Council funding and is being funded by pre-sold tickets. That couldn't be a model for Irish theatre generally – the target audience for Second Age is schools, which at least makes it viable to rely on large-scale advance bookings – but it bespeaks a commercial nous (and courage) that has often been absent in Irish theatre in recent years.

The second novelty is the location for the play: Breen has set it in 1982 in the midst of the Falklands War, as a neat historical parallel to the war over Cyprus in Shakespeare's play. It is a far-off outpost of an empire, an "inhospitable, forbidding, militarised place" in which Desdemona is entirely alien.

The setting isn't an attempt by Breen to foist an interpretation on to the play; rather, it is a way of finding a relatively recent context that might help bring the play home to its audience.

For Breen, that audience – the schools one – has particular strengths. "They know the work so intimately. They're ahead of the game." When they laugh at moments of crudeness or innuendo (of which there are many in Othello), Breen knows "they're listening to every syllable".

In Shakespeare's time, audiences would heckle and throw fruit at the players. For Breen, the schools audiences capture something of this spirit with their less inhibited behaviour: "They have a freedom to respond to the play."

The history of the play Othello reads like a history of the discussion of race. Long chapters of books are devoted to the question of whether Othello was what we would call black (of sub-Saharan African heritage) or North African/Arab. The racist insults that are thrown at him are no clue, because they could have been used in Shakespeare's day as generalised racist comments, rather than specific comments on Othello's actual ethnicity.

Legions of acclaimed white actors played the part of Othello in "blackface": Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and, as late as 1981, Anthony Hopkins. Michael Gambon played the part as an Arab in 1990. In 1997, Patrick Stewart played it in a production that reversed the racial casting: Othello was white, and the rest of the cast were black. In a 2001 modern-English TV version, directed by Geoffrey Sax, Othello was a black police officer given the job of head of the London Metropolitan Police in what is effectively a publicity stunt.

But for Breen, Othello is not a play about race: it's about class. "Iago's hatred for Othello is class hatred, not race hatred," he says, rooted in Iago's resentment at having been passed over for promotion because, despite his great experience as a warrior, he didn't have the perceived status necessary for promotion.

Irish Independent

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