Astonishingly, David Harewood was the first black actor to play the great Moorish Venetian general Othello at London’s National Theatre, triumphantly taking on the role—but not until 1997. Now he returns to the play to discover how the centuries have changed our views of it.
Harewood learns about the Moorish ambassador who visited the court of Queen Elizabeth I and may have inspired Shakespeare. He meets the National Theatre’s latest Othello, Adrian Lester, who has also starred in a play about Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century American actor who was the first black man ever to play the role in England; the reviews were shockingly racist. And he watches different Othellos on film, including Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed if controversial “blacked-up” version from the 1960s.
Othello is actually a play dominated not by race, but by love and a great villain – Iago. A forensic psychiatrist helps to analyze this extraordinary psychopath and how he manipulates Othello by persuading him that his young wife is having an affair. Harewood meets Simon Russell Beale, who played Iago to his Othello, and they re-examine the lethal relationship. Imogen Stubbs and Sir Ian McKellen, who starred in Trevor Nunn’s production; Julia Stiles, whose movie O was a modern take on the play; and Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Othello in a “color-reversed” production, also reflect on their characters.