William Shakespeare's original tragedy Othello is about a Moorish general in the service of Venice who is lured into murderous, self-destructive jealousy by a scheming subordinate. Andrew Davies's modern retelling is set in New Scotland Yard and has all the Bard's wit, romance, pity, and terror -- and then some.
Davies is the screenwriting sensation behind a fascinating mix of theatrical and Masterpiece Theatre productions including Bridget Jones's Diary, The Tailor of Panama, Take a Girl Like You, Wives and Daughters, A Rather English Marriage, Emma, Moll Flanders, Pride and Prejudice, Circle of Friends, Middlemarch, House of Cards, and To Serve Them All My Days.
An accomplished author as well, Davies has published a collection of short stories, Dirty Faxes, and two novels (and their companion screenplays), Getting Hurt and B Monkey. In addition to numerous children's books, he has also written for children's television, including two series of Marmalade Atkins.
Davies has won numerous awards, including an Emmy, two BAFTA awards, three Writers Guild awards, three Broadcasting Press Guild awards, and a Monte Carlo Television Festival award.
In the spring of 2002, Masterpiece Theatre will present his adaptation of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and the following season his version of Boris Pasternak's epic romance of the Russian revolution, Doctor Zhivago.
Davies discussed his version of Othello in a recent conversation with Masterpiece Theatre.
You have said that Othello was an easy idea for you to sell. How easy?
I actually had another idea first.
ITV [the British commercial network] wanted to do a series of modern adaptations of Shakespeare and approached me. I suggested an updated version of The Tempest, with Prospero as a New Age guru on a Caribbean island. He takes little groups of rich people and shows them how to change their lives in wonderful ways. I was really keen to write it, but the commissioners at ITV thought that the first one in the Shakespeare series should be based on one of the big tragedies. I was quite annoyed with this.
So I went over the road and sat in a bar in a very bad temper. I ordered a drink. Then I ordered another drink. And suddenly the idea flashed into my mind: Othello is the first black commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. I got on the phone and talked to Jo Wright, who is the head of drama at LWT [London Weekend Television], and I said, "Jo, Othello is the first black commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police." She said, "Absolutely great idea! I'll ring up ITV." And they said, "Wonderful! We'll commission it." And so it was that easy.
Critics have called Othello Shakespeare's most sexually complex play. Did that influence your choice?
It did, very much. I always do like to write love stories, even if they end tragically. I love the idea of Othello being so fascinated by Desdemona that he watches her while she's sleeping and tries to work out what's going on in her dreams. Also, we've all come pretty close to Othello's paranoid jealousy -- that "Who can I trust?" feeling. Othello is the most domestic of Shakespeare's tragedies and the one that's likely to strike a personal note with a lot of people watching it. The other great tragedies, like Hamlet and Macbeth, are about kings and murder in a dynastic sense. This one is about jealousy, and I would guess that most people have experienced really powerful sexual jealousy sometime in their lives.
Are the racial politics in your adaptation especially topical in Britain?
Yes, there's a famous case here called the Stephen Lawrence case. It involves a black teenager who was murdered by racist thugs in 1993. The original investigation was bungled, and nobody was successfully prosecuted. There was an official inquiry, which concluded that the police were institutionally racist. Ever since then the police have been making huge efforts to clean up their image, but it still hasn't shown up in terms of notable numbers of black and Asian-origin policemen being promoted into high positions. It's still quite a hot issue.
How did you decide what to use from Shakespeare and what to discard?
I didn't want to follow the story slavishly, but to use elements of the plot as jumping-off points. One of the tricky things, of course, is that Shakespeare's plot turns on Desdemona's handkerchief. Nobody uses handkerchiefs these days, and certainly nobody attaches any significance to them. It occurred to me that one might be able to do something that had more metaphorical significance than a handkerchief, something that wasn't just a dearly loved present, which actually had something intimately to do with Othello and Desdemona's sex life.
At first I thought it might be a shirt that she had given him and he particularly liked. Then I thought even better would be a silk robe that she has bought for him and which becomes a part of their lovemaking. When Othello comes back and finds that Michael Cass has put it on, it looks like he's saying he has made love to Desdemona, that Cass has taken Othello's place in his bed.
Did you give a great deal of thought to how you would adapt Shakespeare's characters? Iago seemed more believable as a person than he is in the original.
A lot of people have noticed that Iago is undermotivated in pursuing his vendetta against Othello. He almost gives too many reasons for what he does, and none of them are wholly convincing.
I thought it would be interesting if Iago -- Jago, as I call him -- was somebody who at the beginning was in a superior position to Othello and that Othello gets promoted over his head. When this happens, Jago discovers feelings about Othello that he never knew he had: latent racism, fierce envy, and jealousy. There are also a lot of confused male sexual feelings. Jago has a twisted love for Othello, which has a sexual element.
Also, in his attitudes to women he is quite misogynistic. In his attitudes to everybody he's a bit of a control freak. With women he never wants to be out of control.
Was there collusion between Jago and the journalist who overheard the first police commissioner's racist remark?
Yes, that's right. So, in fact, Jago is a schemer and dishonest from the start. At the beginning he's trying to accelerate his own career by deliberately exposing the casual racism of his boss.
What was your approach to Othello as a character?
I've always had a problem with [Shakespeare's] Othello because he never seems to listen to anyone except Iago. When in doubt, he goes into a long boast about things he's done in the past. He's full of windy bombast, in fact, although you do feel sorry for the poor bugger. I wanted to cut down on that, make him more of a man of action than a man of words.
You also don't get a terrific sense of connection between him and Desdemona. He doesn't know her all that well. Love changes into something rather different and more complex when you know the other person extremely intimately. She's from an entirely different background; I took that over from Shakespeare, but contemporized it. She's a rich girl. She has a very powerful daddy. She's from the establishment. It's a world he doesn't know anything about. When Jago tells him, "Those rich kids, they just lead wild lives when they're young. They just screw everybody," Othello has no experience on which to base this. When he's faced with what looks like hard evidence to back it up, he's all at sea.
In the play, his descent into jealousy and paranoia is almost unbearable...
I hope it's not so unbearable on screen that people want to switch it off! You don't want that to happen. I am hoping, I guess, that people will be upset by it. I must say, watching it at the end where he murders her... I found that very difficult to watch. I found it very difficult to re-read that part of Shakespeare's play.
There's a horrible bit where he hasn't completely suffocated her and she half wakes up, and he just goes ahead and finishes the job, which I find just so horrible. But I thought it would be chickening out if I didn't use it. I actually went to the filming on the day they were doing that scene, and it was really distressing to watch. What you forget when you go to the filming is that they're going to do the scene about nine times before they get it right. When they'd finished, Eamonn [Walker] was in floods of tears, and poor Keeley [Hawes] was a physical wreck.
You also changed the role of Cassio in an interesting way...
Yes, that worked very well, making Michael Cass a younger officer in the police. It took a lot of scratching around, and then it came as one of those happy inspirations, having Desdemona threatened by racists, so Othello decides he's going to put Michael Cass in as her personal protection. And then it becomes very easy for Jago to lay the suspicion in that direction, especially since every man who sees Desdemona just fancies her because she's so appealing.
I thought that was a very nicely judged performance by Richard Coyle as Michael Cass. He and Keeley play together so well. There's that lovely scene where Michael tries his luck with her once, and she turns him down, but in a nice way, because she's not surprised, really. We got a lot of actresses to read that scene, and I would have thought it would be easy for a beautiful actress to play. This must happen to them so much. But they'd get too offended, or too upset. I think Keeley plays it so beautifully and instinctively. She makes it look easy, and until you see someone else try to do it, you don't realize how difficult it is.
Are there other film adaptations of Shakespeare that have influenced you?
Laurence Olivier's Richard III has been a big influence on me. I was much influenced by that when years ago I was writing House of Cards, the political thriller. I used Urquhart, the villain, talking directly to the audience like Richard III, which is something that is very rarely done on television. But it worked well.
Here again, I thought, let's let Jago do it. Let's let him take us into his confidence. I do love the idea of a rather charming, clever villain confiding in us, flattering us, and then taking us further and further down the road, until we're in a place where we don't want to be at all. And he can turn around and say, "Well, you wanted to come on the ride." People say it can't work on television, but if you get it right and if you get a good actor, it can.
You also did that in Moll Flanders.
That's right! Yeah, I do it more often than I realize.
And, in a way, the main characters in Take a Girl Like You don't exactly address the audience, but you hear their thoughts.
You do hear their thoughts, yes. Well, it is something that I like to play with in some of them. I don't do it all the time, do I? I didn't do it Wives and Daughters!
In your Othello, the prime minister seems very Tony Blair-like.
Is the rather cynical way they go about promoting Othello based on the style of Tony Blair's administration?
Yes, it always has been one of the criticisms of Tony Blair's by and large extremely successful government that it's been very much concerned with its own image. It is something that you would imagine that Tony Blair and his team of advisors would do. They would think of a bold political gesture, taking a risk on promoting a guy like Othello, who's made a stir. He's a black man in the right position at just the right time. And they think, let's do it. It might be a good idea for its own sake. But perhaps they're more concerned with how it will play in the media. I suppose I'm having a little dig at the way not just the British government but most governments work these days.
For more about the Stephen Lawrence case mentioned by Andrew Davies, see Masterpiece Theatre Online's The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.
For more about other Davies adaptations, see Masterpiece Theatre Online's: Wives and Daughters
Take a Girl Like You
A Rather English Marriage
To Serve Them All My Days
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