When you’re a freelance director and you’re given a play to consider, you ask yourself a series of questions. Do the story and form interest me? Do I want to bring this text to life for this time, place and audience? Am I the right person for this job? Does it chime with the kind of work I want to be making, and the way I want to make it? (Obviously, unless you’re rich, you also have to figure out whether or not you can afford to turn down work, even if the answer to all of the previous questions is “no”). When I was asked about directing a double bill of Othello and Macbeth, two of the most famous plays in the English language, my answers to these questions were a kaleidoscope of yeses and nos, given vehemence by various expletives.
These plays are badass. They’ve got sword fights, final reckonings and mortals cursing hell and heaven for their tragic fate. And the language is poetry. The characters talk unashamedly and viscerally about love, sex, yearning, triumph and pain, and that’s the kind of theatre that does it for me. debbie tucker green, Alice Birch, Lauren Yee, Edward Albee, Sarah Kane, Enda Walsh – I’m a sucker for a playwright who can send your heart soaring in one sentence and cut it out of you with the next.
They are also plays about men and women; racial and religious prejudice; violence and power. I don’t believe that theatre should tell its audience how to live their lives, but I do think that art reflects the society it’s made for and also shapes its development. As an artist, you take responsibility for the narratives you’re putting into the world, even if you can’t comprehensively predict or control what they will be and how they will be received. Defining yourself and your work as “apolitical” is a political choice. So I looked at these two plays, written hundreds of years ago, and thought about what it would mean to stage them today.
Othello is a play about two women, Desdemona and Emilia, being murdered by their husbands. Desdemona’s husband kills her because he thinks she’s cheating on him. Emilia’s husband kills her because she won’t shut up and go home when he tells her to. The two husbands, Othello and Iago, are generally framed as the central characters. So far, so depressingly recognisable, especially when you find yourself, as I did, looking at how the deaths of Reeva Steenkamp and Nicole Brown Simpson are framed – as the tragic, fascinating story of an underdog rising to the top of society through his physical prowess, then shocking the world by killing a woman he purports to love – and feeling that we haven’t come very far from the days of Shakespeare.
I wasn’t doing this analysis in a vacuum – there is a vast amount of commentary on Shakespeare out there. There is a solid body of analysis that asks, for example, whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello, a man unable to maintain the veneer of civilisation over his inherent murderous savagery, demonstrates a racist attitude towards non white-western-Europeans that most people today would consider abhorrent, dangerous and idiotic.
Yet we keep on staging these plays. We study them at every level of education and laud them as the high watermark of cultural output. They are the only theatre texts guaranteed to unite an audience in attendance and appreciation (regardless of any evidence to the contrary). We stage Macbeth, the story of a “tragic hero” led astray and tricked by witches, without asking what it meant for Shakespeare to write this play at a time when women (and some men) across western Europe were being show-tried and burned at the stake for the crime of “witchcraft”; women murdered by their communities, with the imaginary crime of “communing with the devil” acting as a synonym for “financial independence” or “failing to conform to heterosexual patriarchal relationships”. How does that historical context relate to the characterisation of Lady Macbeth and the three witches?
I have created othellomacbeth by mashing together Othello and Macbeth in a way that, for me, made sense of telling these stories to a UK audience today. Really, all I’ve done is make the Shakespeare productions I want to see in the world, where the language and drama can still thrill me without the politics making me want to be sick. But the form I’ve chosen – using only Shakespeare’s words, keeping the action of the two plays largely faithful to the full text, but editing and staging it in a way that highlights the perspective of female characters – also allows me to ask what it means for us, as artists and audiences, to revive and relive these plays over and over again.