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Othello On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's Venetian tragedy

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Although Othello has inspired numerous British feature films, it took a surprisingly long time for anyone to tackle a straight adaptation, possibly because there was no shortage of foreign versions in the silent era (Austria, 1908; Italy, 1909 and 1914; Denmark, 1911; Germany, 1922). A much more popular approach in the cinema's first half-decade was to use the play as a springboard for a separate modern drama: both versions of Carnival (1921 silent, 1931 sound) and the romantic comedy Men Are Not Gods (1936) involve an actor playing Othello who finds that the character's jealousy spills over into his real-life relationships. The last of these also includes a handy capsule guide to mid-1930s performance styles, with Sebastian Shaw seen giving a rendition of many of the play's key scenes.

Attempts at adapting the original play began after World War II, starting with a 45-minute compilation of selected scenes assembled by David MacKane in 1946, starring Sebastian Cabot (Iago), John Slater (Othello), Luanna Shaw (Desdemona) and Sheila Raynor (Emilia). In 1953, The World's A Stage, a collaboration between the Young Vic Theatre Players and director Charles Deane, filmed the handkerchief scene. 1961 saw the release of All Night Long (d. Basil Dearden), which at least attempted to encapsulate the whole play, albeit in a modern-dialogue update that is more interesting for its portrait of the early 1960s London jazz scene (complete with real life celebrity luminaries such as Charles Mingus, John Dankworth and Dave Brubeck) than for its insights into Shakespeare, though the multiracial cast (Patrick McGoohan, Paul Harris, Keith Michell, Marti Stevens) give effective performances.

In 1965, Shakespeare's original text finally merited a full-length British feature, albeit essentially a filmed record of Laurence Olivier's legendary 1964 National Theatre production (John Dexter was the original director, with Stuart Burge behind the cameras). Controversy over Olivier's overtly Negroid make-up, quasi-Jamaican accent and deliberately unsympathetic interpretation overshadowed the fact that this was also one of the century's most radical and original Othellos, and Frank Finlay's Iago and Maggie Smith's Desdemona provided ample support.

The recent US/UK co-production directed by Oliver Parker is more satisfying as a film - Parker was clearly influenced by his co-star Kenneth Branagh in his naturalistic approach, complete with fantasy sequences (Othello's imagining of Desdemona's infidelity is all too vivid). However, it's less effective as a rendition of the text. Laurence Fishburne's impressive screen presence just about overcomes his obvious lack of verse training (though this is not entirely his fault, as the text is so heavily cut that many of the original rhythms have gone). Swiss actress Irène Jacob has a similar problem with the language (albeit for different reasons), but adds at least one genuinely imaginative touch: her final desperate caress of Othello even as he's killing her. Unsurprisingly, Kenneth Branagh received - and deserved - most of the acting plaudits, though his camped-up Iago often seems oddly divorced from the rest of the action.

Television has generally proved a more fruitful medium for the play, with at least one near-great version (1990) and several very good ones. The first television broadcast was on 14 December 1937, and consisted of an abridged (67-minute) version by George More O'Ferrall, starring Baliol Holloway (Othello), Celia Johnson (Desdemona) and Anthony Quayle (Cassio). The play made two appearances in 1950, the first consisting of a 30-minute version of the final scene of Georges Neveux' French-language adaptation (BBC, tx. 8/3/1950), then being performed by the Comédie Française at the Old Vic in London. This was quickly followed a month later (tx. 23/4/1950) by a more conventional English-language production, with George More O'Ferrall, by now British television's leading Shakespeare veteran, directing once again. It starred André Morell (Othello), Stephen Murray (Iago), Joan Hopkins (Desdemona) and Margaretta Scott (Emilia). None of these productions is believed to have been recorded.

Happily, the BBC's next version (tx. 15/12/1955) still survives, which is doubly fortunate as it is historically interesting for numerous reasons. Firstly, it's one of the few extant examples of Tony Richardson's prolific 1950s television output, before he made his name directing plays and feature films. Secondly, and more importantly, it's the earliest recorded screen performance of a black actor playing Othello - in this case Gordon Heath, opposite Paul Rogers (Iago), Rosemary Harris (Desdemona) and a young Robert Hardy (Cassio).

Controversially, the BBC reverted to a white actor for the BBC Television Shakespeare production (tx. 4/10/1981), but this was unfair on Anthony Hopkins, who stepped into the breach when director Jonathan Miller's original choice, the American actor James Earl Jones, proved impossible to cast following a dispute with the actors' union Equity. Hopkins is overwhelmingly the reason to watch this production: Bob Hoskins' Iago is marred by his inexperience with Shakespeare and a regrettable tendency to accompany his villainy with giggling, though Penelope Wilton and especially Rosemary Leach give powerful accounts of Desdemona and Emilia respectively. The previous evening, novelist Susan Hill fronted a Shakespeare in Perspective documentary on the play.

The next two productions were more rewarding. On 24 December 1988, Channel 4 broadcast Janet Suzman's genuinely groundbreaking Market Theatre of Johannesburg touring version, which had made a huge impact in a country still under the apartheid regime for its casting of black actor John Kani as Othello. And on 23 June 1990, the BBC preserved Trevor Nunn's famous 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production, set at the time of the US Civil War and notable for an outstanding quartet of performances by Ian McKellen (Iago), Imogen Stubbs (Desdemona), Zoë Wanamaker (Emilia) and especially Willard White as Othello, whose rendition of the verse took full advantage of his better-known career as a distinguished operatic bass-baritone. Arguably the most satisfying filmed version of Othello to date, it also presented a largely complete account of the text.

The most recent television Othello (ITV, tx. 23/12/2001) was also very effective, but for completely different reasons. Adapted by Andrew Davies, it was a modern-dialogue transposition of the plot to a present-day and highly topical setting, with police officer John Othello promoted to the first black head of the Metropolitan Police, over the head of his nominal superior Ben Jago. Although Davies' script inevitably fails to match the original's poetry, it is a masterclass in filleting the most effective dramatic elements, and in at least one respect Davies arguably improves on Shakespeare: the opening riot is better integrated into the drama than the Bard's offstage wars. Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston have superb screen chemistry as Othello and Jago, their relationship given an intensity that at times becomes almost homoerotic, while Geoffrey Sax's efficient direction brings it in at 90 minutes without ever giving the impression that anything significant has been lost.

There have been two animated versions of the play - the first, from 1920, was one of Anson Dyer's charming cut-out burlesques, in which Othello's seaside minstrel romances Mona, the glamorous daughter of the local bathing-machine proprietor. Sadly, only a short fragment survives.

The textual and extratextual richness of the play has led to many documentaries, including behind-the-scenes looks at the 1965 and 1990 productions (the latter courtesy of BBC2's Late Show). More insights were provided by an instalment in BBC2's Video Diaries series - 'Our Man In Othello' (tx. 5/10/1998) presented a personal account by the actor David Harewood, the first black actor to play the lead in a National Theatre production, which was touring the Far East at the time of the filming. Most recently, The South Bank Show devoted its 16 May 2004 edition to a general overview of the play in what was believed to be its 400th anniversary year.


1946, d. David MacKane
The World's A Stage, 1953, d. Charles Deane
All Night Long, 1961, d. Basil Dearden (modern dialogue update)
1965, d. Stuart Burge

BBC, tx. 14/12/1937 BBC, tx. 8/3/1950 (final scene from Georges Neveux' French version)
BBC, tx. 23/4/1950
BBC, tx. 20/6/1954 (excerpts)
BBC, tx. 15/12/1955, d. Tony Richardson
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 4/10/1981, d. Jonathan Miller
Channel 4, tx. 27/12/1988, d. Janet Suzman
Theatre Night, BBC2, tx. 23/6/1990, d. Trevor Nunn
ITV, tx. 23/12/2001, d. Geoffrey Sax (modern dialogue update by Andrew Davies)

1920, d. Anson Dyer (comic parody)
Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, BBC2, tx. 14/12/1994, d. Nikolai Serebriakov

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 3/10/1981, p. Susan Hill
The Late Show: Nunn's Othello, BBC2, tx. 18/6/90
Video Diaries: Our Man In Othello, BBC2, tx. 5/10/1998, p. David Harewood
The South Bank Show: Othello, ITV, tx. 16/5/2004

Other References
Carnival, 1921, d. Harley Knoles
Carnival, 1931, d. Herbert Wilcox
Men Are Not Gods, 1936, d. Walter Reisch

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of All Night Long (1961)

All Night Long (1961)

Shakespeare's Othello meets the early 1960s London jazz scene

Thumbnail image of Carnival (1921)

Carnival (1921)

A Venetian actor's life mirrors that of Othello in this silent melodrama

Thumbnail image of Carnival (1931)

Carnival (1931)

A Venetian actor identifies a little too closely with his character, Othello

Thumbnail image of Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Romantic comedy melodrama inspired by Shakespeare's Othello

Thumbnail image of Othello (1920)

Othello (1920)

Cut-out parody of Othello by British animator Anson Dyer

Thumbnail image of Othello (1981)

Othello (1981)

Controversial BBC adaptation with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins

Thumbnail image of Othello (1990)

Othello (1990)

Acclaimed RSC production with Ian McKellen and Willard White

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)

Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

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