Every year, the Marlowe Society’s Arts Show sees student actors and production team work alongside professional creatives to put on a classic play at the 666-seat Cambridge Arts Theatre. This year’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello is the 84th Marlowe Arts Show and is directed by University of Cambridge alumnus John Haidar.

In early January Marlowe Society President Hannah Shury-Smith sat with Haidar to ask him a few questions about the play, the production and why we continue to stage Shakespeare in 2020.

What makes Othello a great play?

It has some the best lines of any of the plays written by William Shakespeare. It has this penetrating psychological insight. I think it remains unsurpassed as a tragedy of jealousy. What’s conflicting, and therefore exciting, about that – and I’m not sure I realised this fully before we started rehearsals – is how closely aligned love and hate are within it, that one can blur and bleed into the other without the character being immediately conscious of that. In Othello, Shakespeare gives us another of the most iconic villains in Western literature and invites us to commune with him as he initiates the destruction of everything he professes, outwardly, to love. It’s a brilliantly audacious, and resolutely Shakespearean, thing to do. Then he goes one step further. He builds the world of the play, he deploys Iago to invite us into it, by introducing us to his eclectic mix of characters he asks us to invest in it, and then has Iago destroy it. The playwright refuses to tell us what to think about this. Iago’s narrative arc ends with the line, ‘From this time forth, I never will speak word’, perhaps the greatest mic drop in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It reveals a writer absolutely in control of his craft, whose confidence is such that, whatever an audience’s interpretation might be, he won’t reduce the play by giving us easy answers in its dying moments.

"For every actor, inhabiting someone else’s life is, I think, a powerful act of empathy."

How do you keep it fresh for a twenty-first century audience?

Shakespeare’s plays are so vast, in terms of their ideas, that I think it’s impossible to “do” the entire thing. As a cast and creative team, we can only do our version of Othello, which should prioritise those aspects of the play that matter most to us. That process inevitably involves loss and means that certain characters, scenes or storylines are neglected in favour of others. But what I hope that deprivation does is to bring other aspects of the play into a renewed focus. In terms of the set and costume, I’m trying to find – in this case with Camilla, our designer – a way to represent the ideas of the play, rather than its literal setting(s). This gives us freedom to employ a level of visual abstraction, which might surprise an audience when they enter the theatre. It’s up to us to conjure certain locations within it, working with light and sound to give the production its expressionistic resonance, navigating an emotional landscape that Shakespeare has written.

Why should we return to these Elizabethan and Jacobean texts, when new plays are being written all the time?

I think we’re living through a golden age of British and international playwrighting where theatrical form is being played with in surprising new ways, critiquing what writers perceive to be the existing values of the literary establishment, smashing conventional expectations of dramatic structure. But that iconoclastic spirit has to have come from somewhere. Now, I’m not saying all those writers are indebted to Shakespeare specifically, but I think there’s room to be inspired by and pay back artists whose work preceded the generation we find ourselves in. Shakespeare's plays are limitless, in the sense that they will be endlessly adapted and interpreted in, and because of, the social and political context in which they’re revived, catalysing future playwrights to be as creatively restless as he was.

There are roles in the play that have been played by some of the greatest actors, so how do you help a performer find their own way into the text?


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For an actor approaching a play with so much performance history, I think it’s important to try to forget as much of that as possible. There is, of course, a respect for the work of other practitioners, past and present, but that can’t be the story we’re going to tell with this company in this theatre at this time. And that process is different for every actor, for whom inhabiting someone else’s life is, I think, a powerful act of empathy. As an actor or a director, if you’ve seen the play before, it’s unbelievable how many of your previous expectations prove to be inaccurate when you go through the script in detail. When you feel like you’ve made a discovery, however small, it’s like having the writer in the room with you. It makes you realise what an expert craftsman of the world of the play Shakespeare is. He rarely misses a beat and it’s for us to excavate the text to find detail, humour, light, and shade. Every line carries meaning; every line reveals character; every line furthers the story.

Othello runs from 29th January to 1st February at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

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