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An Interview with ETT’s Artistic Director Richard Twyman

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The beautiful thing about Shakespeare is that it is constantly evolving. There are new productions every year that draw parallels between the Elizabethan era and the 21st Century, and encourage us to see the Bard’s work in a new light. One such production is Richard Twyman’s Othello, which is currently being performed around the country by English Touring Theatre as part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations. We chatted to Twyman about his innovative approach to the play, delving in to Othello’s identity as a Muslim, and how this helps ETT fulfil their responsibility to question what it means to be English.

Culture Calling: Why did you choose Othello as English Touring Theatre’s latest production?

Culture Calling: Why did you choose Othello as English Touring Theatre’s latest production?

Richard Twyman: It’s actually a production I was asked to direct almost two years ago. I was working at the Royal Court at the time and I was leaving to be a freelancer, when Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory asked me to direct a Shakespeare for them. They said I could choose which play I wanted to do, so I went to my library and looked through all the different copies I had. I saw my old copy of Othello that I’d used when I studied it at A Level. I’d already done it as an Assistant Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2003/4, and have never come back to it since - I’d saturated it a bit back then! But I sat down and started to read it again, and thought, firstly, this is the most relevant Shakespeare play at this point in time. Then I also realised that I thought I’d previously missed something in the play.

Richard Twyman in rehearsal for Othello. Image Credit: Helen Murray.

What it was is that, there are a lot of references to the overt racism Othello suffers, and a lot of them to do with skin colour. But I realised was he is called a “Moor”, 50/60 times in the play. So I started to do some research, and discovered that there was this book that had just come out by Jerry Brotton called This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World. It’s an amazing study of the history of the relationship between England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Moorish Kingdom, and it made me realise that Moors in Elizabethan England were synonymous, geographically with someone from North Africa, but also with a practitioner of Islam. I thought, wow, I’ve never seen a production before that explored his spiritual identity as a Moor. So I went to my amazing collaborator Abdul Rehman Malik who’s helped me on previous plays that have explored the Middle East and Islam, and asked him if he thought it was a valid approach. And he said that he thought it was, and that there was a way we could look at Othello’s spirituality to help the audience understand him more. So we did it, and it was really successful, and that’s why we’ve decided to revive and restage it this year as a big ETT tour.

CC: Did you also choose to focus on Othello’s Islamic identity to tie in with relevant, contemporary issues surrounding Islamophobia?

RT: Exactly that. So much so that I remember the first time round, in week 2 of rehearsal, Donald Trump announced his travel ban, which supposedly wasn’t directed at Muslims but reading between the lines it was very clear what it was. It was interesting when we were rehearsing how life and art were very much imitating each other. But as well as making it contemporary, this lens also allowed us to look back at the history a bit more, and understand what it meant to be a Moor in Venice at that time. In the first few scenes of the play Othello is called a devil, he’s accused of witchcraft, there’s a very hot Venetian racism that’s as much about his spiritual identity as it is his skin colour. We obviously already know about the Jewish ghetto from The Merchant of Venice, but looking at Jerry Brotton’s research we found that you weren’t even allowed into the city if you were a practicing Muslim. Interestingly, even today there aren’t any mosques in Venice. Controversially there was one built by an Icelandic artist at the Venice Biennale a few years ago, and it caused uproar.

Victor Oshin (Othello) in rehearsal for Othello. Image Credit: Helen Murray

CC: Is the play placed in a contemporary setting too, or are you drawing allusions to 21st Century whilst maintaining the traditional context?

RT: It’s contemporary dress. Venice, in our production, is a more distilled, focused version of a western, capitalist, post-colonial society, so there are lot of things that are recognisable and applicable to a European or American context.

CC: Obviously the dress and setting is important within an adaptation, but how do you, within a set framework of a Shakespeare, explore new ideas?

RT: Well the first answer is that our new lens allowed us to discover things that were already there in the script, but weren’t focused on before. But we were also a bit cheeky, and we did add some things! The first thing that happens offstage is that Othello and Desdemona get married, and the play normally opens with Iago just having told Roderigo about their union, but it’s not explicit to the audience until about 3 or 4 pages in. I always felt that the audience were quite behind the curve, and that it was quite hard for them to catch up on what was happening, so we decided to stage the wedding.

The other reason for that was because the play ends in absolute chaos, with love having been destroyed, so we thought for that arc to make sense dramaturgically, it was really important for us to see harmonious, beautiful love right at the very beginning. This made us ask questions about what a wedding would be like if Othello was a practicing Muslim, so we started to look at Islamic ceremonies, and Abdul Rehman Malik told us the most important thing was that the man in the ceremony gives a gift, which we decided would be the handkerchief. This really problematic handkerchief that the plot hinges on and so many people have talked about! We felt it made total sense.

Kitty Archer (Desdemona) and Victor Oshin (Othello) in rehearsal for Othello. Image Credit: Helen Murray.

The other thing we realised was that the ceremony would have been conducted in Arabic, so we start the play not with Shakespeare’s words, but in fact in a different language! It really does shock the audience and say “you think you know this play, but this is another way to view it.” Other than that we’ve added in little moments where Othello tries to pray, and most significantly of all, when Iago convinces Othello, he actually turns away from his spirituality and breaks his pray beads, releasing his God and love for Desdemona, and accepting Iago’s Venetian, patriarchal, and misogynistic view of the world, which then leads him to do what he does.

CC: You’ve previously worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, during which time your production of Henry IV Pt II as part of the Histories Cycle was awarded 3 Olivier Awards! What is it that draws you to Shakespeare, or that you enjoy about directing the Bard’s work?

RT: I really like that you can come to these plays and find your own story within it. They’re so big, have been done in so many different ways, but you can never break them whatever you do! So it really allows you to test yourself as an artist. The other thing is that Shakespeare’s work has such a profound effect on the audience. Othello is such a painful, beautiful play, and it is so thrilling to watch. The other thing is that Othello and Shakespeare play such a prominent - and arguably too prominent - place in our cultural identity as a country. What that means it that when you do something like emphasise the fact Othello is Muslim, it opens the play out to a whole new audience that may not have seen themselves in Shakespeare otherwise. It’s a way of saying that this whole history of English identity is much more open, multicultural and diverse than we ever knew. It’s been written out of history, whereas it’s really in our DNA.

Brian Lonsdaler (Roderigo) and Paul McEwan (Iago) in rehearsal for Othello. Image Credit: Helen Murray

CC: As the name suggests, ETT is committed to touring productions around the entire country. Why do you think it is important to ensure high quality theatre is seen outside of London?

RT: When I joined English Touring Theatre, it was the week of the Brexit vote. It was a really interesting moment when a lot of artists realised that there was a social cultural story in the UK that they were not tuning into, and that they were not making work for huge swathes of audiences. So for me it was really important to find a way of going around the country, find out what was going on, listening to people and telling stories and making sense of where we are. The other thing that was really important for me, was that if I was going to run a company calling English Touring Theatre, that has English in the title, we not only have a responsibility to perform all around the country but also to ask questions about what being English means. We can’t just put on stage nostalgic reflective ideas, we want to present provocative, progressive views of what "being English” is.

Kitty Archer (Desdemona), Chris Bianchi (Brabantio) and James Godden (Soldier, Senator) in rehearsal for Othello. Image Credit: Helen Murray

CC: And this September is ETT’s 25th Anniversary. Are there any exciting plans for the next 25 years?

RT: To continue doing work that is like this, and asks big questions about our society, but also manages to give people an amazing night out at the theatre. Immediately, we’ve got a big tour of Equus next year that Ned Bennet is direction, which we’re incredibly excited about. It’ll be the first revival since Peter Shaffer’s sad death. We’ve also got some new writing coming, big plans for international touring, and more brilliant projects popping up all over the country!

Othello opened at Oxford Playhouse on 18 September, and is now commencing its National Tour visiting venues including Harrogate Theatre (25-29 September), Cast Doncaster (2-6 October), Lawrence Batley Theatre (9-13 October), Everyman Theatre Cheltenham (16-20 October), Oldham Coliseum (23-27 October), New Wolsey Ipswitch (30 October- 3 November), Warwick Arts Centre (6-10 October), Northern Stage (13-17 November), and Lighthouse Pool (20-24 November).