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Othello (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Othello (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 4/10/1981, 205 mins, colour
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerColin Lowrey
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Othello); Bob Hoskins (Iago); Penelope Wilton (Desdemona); Rosemary Leach (Emilia); Geoffrey Chater (Brabantio); Anthony Pedley (Roderigo), David Yelland (Cassio)

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Jealous at the promotion of the Moorish general Othello, Iago plots to secure his downfall by provoking him into believing his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful.

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One of the more controversial productions in the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, Othello has the dubious distinction of being the last British television production of the play with a white actor in the title role. This was not what was originally intended, but the initial casting choice, American actor James Earl Jones, proved impossible to cast following complaints by the British actors' union Equity. This arguably would have ensured a hostile reception on its US television airing regardless of who eventually played the part.

Perhaps wisely, Anthony Hopkins chose not to copy Laurence Olivier's overtly Negroid make-up in his 1960s National Theatre production, preferring a swarthy appearance that establishes a physical difference between Othello and the other characters without resorting to caricature. Indeed, Hopkins' Othello is at pains not to exaggerate: he stresses the Moor's control over every aspect of his behaviour (clearly adopted after much thought about how best to fit into a society that regards him with suspicion) - which makes his rages later on doubly terrifying, signalling the triumph of instinctive reaction over coherent thought.

Bob Hoskins' Cockney-accented Iago is just as differentiated, and while this is not mentioned onscreen, for British viewers it suggests that his hatred and jealousy of Othello is as much to do with class as race or nationality - though he over-eggs this characterisation somewhat by also making him a giggling near-psychopath. Penelope Wilton is older than is common for Desdemona, but this works to the character's advantage, suggesting a woman with a certain knowledge of the world - and consequently making Othello's jealous fury more plausible. But the outstanding performance is Rosemary Leach's Emilia, whose impassioned reading of an often sidelined character turns her into the audience's surrogate conscience, intensifying the emotional impact of the final scenes.

Of all Shakespeare's great tragedies, Othello is conceived on the smallest scale, and Jonathan Miller's approach to both staging and design stresses its domesticity. It almost entirely takes place in interiors: there's only the most fleeting visual impression of Venice, while the sunnier environs of Cyprus are conveyed through lighting alone. As with most of Miller's productions, the visual inspiration came from sixteenth-century Mediterranean painters, in this case Tintoretto, El Greco and Velasquez. At 205 minutes, this is one of the longest BBC Shakespeare productions, and the text is duly presented almost complete, with only minor trims to material rendered redundant by small-screen restaging.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Othello's homecoming (2:40)
2. Fire and brimstone (4:19)
3. Emilia's testimony (4:59)
Othello (1990)
Othello (2001)
Hopkins, Anthony (1937-)
Hoskins, Bob (1942-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Othello On Screen