A new interpretation of Othello opens up portrayals of Islam that are absent from TV shows like Bodyguard
An Islamic prayer mat and a secret Muslim tragic-hero uttering “Ya Akbar” aren’t typically associated with Shakespeare, but Othello has been given a dramatic twist in a new touring production that illustrates the complexities of identity in modern Britain. A co-production involving English Touring Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, the play is on tour across the UK including in some of its more deprived areas, such as Oldham and Huddersfield. At a time when fictional portrayals of Muslims often suffer from reductionist stereotypes – as in the BBC’s Bodyguard, which had a Muslim woman as a jihadi terrorist – this new interpretation offers a powerfully nuanced message of belonging, and takes account of the centuries-long history of relations between England and the Muslim world.
The Moor of Venice was first produced in 1604, a year after Elizabeth I’s reign ended. She had sought an alliance with the Ottoman empire against Catholic Spain – opening up diplomatic, political, economic and cultural exchange – with ambassadors from Morocco visiting the Elizabethan court. So the play’s timing could not have been pure coincidence. Professor Jerry Brotton, in his book This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World notes: “This story is part of the heritage of Christians, Muslims and any others who call themselves English.”