November 30, 2021

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A Uncommon ‘Othello’ Places the Highlight on Race

A Rare ‘Othello’ Puts the Spotlight on Race

ST. PÖLTEN, Austria — “Converse of me as I’m,” Othello urges within the wrenching last scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy. But for hundreds of years, these phrases — a plea for correct illustration — had been spoken, by and huge, by white actors.

Nicholas Monu, who stars in a brand new manufacturing of “Othello,” operating by means of Dec. 4 on the Landestheater Niederösterreich right here, is fairly positive that he’s solely the second Black performer to play the position in Austrian theater historical past. The final time was practically 170 years in the past, in 1853, when the pioneering African-American actor Ira Aldridge held Viennese audiences spellbound because the Moor of Venice.

As directed by the younger Black British director Rikki Henry, this new “Othello” breaks floor in a rustic the place artists of shade stay a rarity onstage.

Nearly all of Austria’s inhabitants of round 9 million is white and was born right here, although the percentage of foreigners and folks with migration backgrounds has been rising steadily lately. Like its bigger and extra ethnically various neighbor Germany, Austria has a strong system of state-funded theaters that make use of full-time appearing ensembles; these, just like the nation at massive, are overwhelmingly white.

With its new “Othello,” the Landestheater is jump-starting a dialog about racism in Austrian society and the necessity for variety on the nation’s levels. In line with the theater, there has by no means been a German-language manufacturing of “Othello” with each a Black director and star earlier than, and it appears important that the primary is happening not in a significant cultural metropolis, however in St. Pölten, a small metropolis 40 miles outdoors Vienna.

“It’s usually mentioned that innovation comes from the provinces,” Marie Rötzer, the Landestheater’s inventive director since 2016, mentioned in an interview. Not too long ago, her playhouse has been punching above its weight, with productions together with a stellar 2019 staging of the Nobel Prize-winning creator Elfriede Jelinek’s allegory of the Trump presidency, “Am Königsweg,” and a 2020 “Hamlet” that was Henry’s home debut, and which won a Netroy, the distinguished Austrian theater award.

Though Shakespeare has lengthy been honored within the German-speaking world, “Othello” is a comparative rarity on its theater packages.

“Usually, no one right here desires to the touch it,” mentioned Tim Breyvogel, the German actor who performs Iago, in an interview after a latest matinee efficiency. Within the incorrect palms, he mentioned, an “Othello” manufacturing can legitimize stereotypes about Black males. After which there’s the difficulty of casting, he added: Even in Austria, most theaters now notice that presenting the title role in blackface was unacceptable.

Rötzer mentioned she knew her theater’s “Othello” will need to have a Black actor within the title position. After Henry’s success with “Hamlet,” she approached him about directing the present. Henry and Monu’s experiences as Black males helped the theater to “develop an consciousness about find out how to deal with subjects which might be a part of the Black neighborhood,” she mentioned.

“With this ‘Othello,’ we’re addressing wounds: the injuries of racism, hostility in direction of refugees, xenophobia and the isolationism that you just usually discover in Austria,” Rötzer mentioned.

Henry, 33, mentioned in an interview that it was “a problem to attempt to work out what the story would now inform in Austria — as a result of, in fact, race relations are totally different in Austria than they’re in England.”

His strikingly modern manufacturing is about on the earth {of professional} boxing, the place Othello is a heavyweight prizefighter. “My concept was of somebody who was extremely lonely and somebody who was remoted,” Henry mentioned.

That sense of exclusion and alienation, the director mentioned, was one thing that everybody, no matter their pores and skin shade, may relate to. The boxing body additionally helped to inspire Iago’s machinations and reveal the character’s racism, he added. “Iago’s manipulations and reasonings turned extra alive, as a result of boxing is so aggressive and depends on intrigue,” Henry mentioned.

The Black Lives Matter motion was heating up as he labored on the present final yr, however Henry mentioned he was cautious to not take the manufacturing in an overtly political path. “We didn’t need to say to the viewers, ‘You’re racist!’” Henry mentioned. “Theater isn’t presupposed to be accusing anybody. It’s presupposed to be supporting and possibly ennobling them in a roundabout way.”

“Perhaps it simply sparks some attention-grabbing questions that you just haven’t requested earlier than, like, ‘How do I deal with that brown one who delivers my mail each morning?’” he added.

Monu, 56, who was born in Nigeria however lives in Salzburg, Austria, mentioned that racism in Austrian society largely lay beneath the floor. “Folks don’t give it a number of thought. There hasn’t been that journey that America has been compelled to make, due to slavery, Jim Crow, and many others. — or that Germany has been compelled to make, due to the Second World Warfare,” he mentioned.

“It’s not an aggressive type of racism,” he added. “You’re simply not taken critically or not seen as on fairly the identical stage as a human being.”

Monu, who started his appearing profession in England, is a former ensemble member of two of probably the most important theaters within the German-speaking world: the Schaubühne in Berlin and the Burgtheater in Vienna. But regardless of having benefited from the ensemble system, he mentioned it might want updating if it hoped to replicate the more and more multiethnic actuality of Europe as we speak.

“It’s a incredible system, designed for brothers like this,” he mentioned, gesturing towards Breyvogel, who sat subsequent to him throughout the interview, “to have the ability to go from right here to Berlin to Vienna, and be capable of match straight in, as a result of the system is just about the identical all over the place.”

To ensure that issues to alter, Austrian theater directors and audiences might want to develop into extra conversant in seeing actors of shade and listening to totally different accents onstage, Monu mentioned. He noticed some encouraging indicators, he added: When he joined the Burgtheater within the early 2000s, he was the one Black actor within the ensemble; as we speak, there are three.

“In the event you’re going to be really numerous, then you definitely’ve bought to open up your doorways in direction of individuals who don’t sound such as you, seem like you,” Monu mentioned. “Typically the journey’s going to be disagreeable or uncomfortable.”

Monu mentioned he hoped that this “Othello” would possibly encourage native audiences take that journey. “I can strive my finest to the touch as many individuals as I can, simply by saying, ‘Hey, you realize what, I’m the primary Black man you’ve ever seen onstage — and talking German.’”

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