A balancing act of inspiration

by Nobuko Tanaka and Victoria James

“Othello” director Gregory Doran, 45, has been hailed by London critics as “the redeemer of the RSC.” He joined the company in 1987 as an actor, but soon turned to directing and often works in collaboration with his partner, Antony Sher. Last year he received Britain’s top theater honor, an Olivier Award, for his season of “Jacobethan” drama.

Producer Thelma Holt also sat in on the interview, and the two discussed plans to bring RSC productions to Japan — and export Japanese theater to Britain.

NT: Why did you set your “Othello” in the 1940s/50s?

GD: Shakespeare did it in contemporary dress, so we’d be “changing the period” if we’d done it in the costumes of 1604. But doing it in the modern world, we decided to push it back a little. I describe it as being a world that’s not just elsewhere, but elsewhen.

If it’s absolutely 2004, that throws up unuseful parallels . . . [such as] how to play the women. You’d be saying, “Why is Desdemona not just fighting as a soldier?” But she is defined as somebody it would be impossible to imagine going to that war. Both she and Emilia have to be aliens in the war zone.

NT: Do we still need a black actor playing Othello, or is it just political correctness?

GD: Shakespeare writes the part for a black man. There are two very defined meanings of the word “moor” in Shakespeare’s world, one is black, or negro, the other is moor as an Islamic Arab. It’s quite clear that he meant black, a “blackamoor” — Shakespeare feels it’s important there’s a racial difference.

Now the weird thing is that by casting an African, [Sello Maake] ka Ncube, and by having an Iago who is also from South Africa, the race issue is dealt with and doesn’t have to be commented on.

The main thing we have to worry about with Othello is that there’s a substantial age difference between him and Desdemona, and that’s what Iago works upon. He keeps saying, “Well, of course Desdemona would go after a younger man . . .” — and that’s a very recognizable insecurity.

I don’t believe the part should be played by a white man blacked up, unless you don’t have a black actor to play it. I would never stage Othello without a black actor — in modern Britain that would be an absurdity.

NT: When I met Sir Peter Hall recently he said that when Shakespeare is translated into other languages it becomes completely different. Do you agree?

GD: Well, there’s an old saying, traduttore, traditore, “translator, traitor” — you cannot translate absolutely. So Shakespeare translated into other languages becomes something else. It’s parallel, it’s great, but it’s not quite the same experience.

NT: Have you seen any Japanese Shakespeare

GD: Yes of course, and it was fantastic. When I saw the “Hamlet” which came to Sadler’s Wells [a leading London theater], which Thelma brought, it was extraordinary. I couldn’t understand the language; I could understand the emotional states of the play, but the storyline — it was like looking at an illustrated Shakespeare, it was like telling the story very simply, and that was exciting.

I think part of Shakespeare’s greatness is that he yields so many different art forms, from operatic art forms, to ballet — think of “Otello,” Verdi’s version, and you feel the great sweep of that play. He talks about such profoundly human emotions that they can be translated into all these different languages and forms. There’s never any definitive Shakespeare.

VJ: It’s been reported that you are thinking of using noh in an upcoming production.

GD: No. No noh! (laughs) When I was here last, with “Macbeth,” I went down to Osaka to see bunraku [puppet theater], just out of curiosity, but I realized that here was a form that began round about Shakespeare’s lifetime. I read that the first coming together of bunraku was around 1615, which was the year of Shakespeare’s death. That set off an idea in my mind.

What you get in bunraku is the perfect balance of poetry, of commentary and of music. Now, Shakespeare wrote two great narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” and I’ve loved “Venus and Adonis” for many years and wanted to do it as a play. But you can’t dramatize it. You don’t want an actor playing Venus and an actor playing Adonis. So what we’re going to do, at the RSC, is to marry Shakespeare’s poem and dramatize it through puppetry and have music as well.

What we are aiming to do is take the inspiration from bunraku, but we’re aware that we’re never going to be able to learn the craft that these great puppeteers have learned over many, many years, but we think we can share some elements ot bunraku. That’s direct inspiration from one of our visits to Japan. It’s the next project on my schedule.

VJ: Where does Japan fit into the RSC’s plans?

GD: We’re hoping to have a three-year plan.

TH: It’s happening now, “Othello” is the first one. Each year we’ll bring a production. It’ll also go the other way, [Japanese director Yukio] Ninagawa will bring a production to London.

GD: I’m very keen to do “Venus and Adonis.” I know there must be a proper way of doing it, with Japanese involvement, so we will then bring it back here. Although I’d be shy of it being judged by the standards of classic bunraku, it’s very important that we do that.