New 'Othello' set in modern London

Sunday, January 27, 2002

NEW YORK -- Chances are you've encountered "Othello" -- at least, the Cliffs Notes edition.

You remember: That age-old drama about a noble black general; his wife, Desdemona; and his calculating crony, Iago, who makes good (if that's the word) on a pledge to twist Desdemona's virtue into "the net that shall enmesh them all."

Now, thanks to "Masterpiece Theatre," Shakespeare's timeless tale of jealousy writ large is unfolding in the timeliest of settings: New Scotland Yard in the 21st century.

This time around, John Othello is London's first black police commissioner, Dessie is his bride, and Ben Jago serves as his trusted aide-de-camp who, by undermining Othello in both the workplace and the marriage bed, aims to poach Othello's plush job for himself.

Media-savvy overlords. A bugged men's room. Even (shades of Monica Lewinsky!) a DNA test meant to prove Dessie's infidelity. This "Othello," airing at 8 p.m. Monday on PBS, has plenty of contemporary touches.

Draws on real life

Adding even more currency, it draws on a real-life cause celebre: the 1993 stabbing death of a black London teen-ager named Stephen Lawrence. For many, he lives on as a symbol of institutionalized racism in the police force that failed to adequately investigate the crime.

In "Othello," a black man's death at the hands of white cops nearly sparks a riot, quelled only when Othello appeals to the crowd in what happens to be his old neighborhood. An instant hero, Othello is appointed police commissioner -- leapfrogging over Jago, his former mentor.

Thus does Othello, however qualified, unwittingly become a political pawn, a racial token and Jago's sitting duck.

But that overcomplicates things. Sizing up the tragedy, Jago (played to reptilian perfection by Christopher Eccleston) admonishes the audience: "Don't talk to me about race, don't talk to me about politics. It was about love. Simple as that."

It's about corrosive love between best friends. And about the love of a lifetime that dooms Dessie (the luminous Keeley Hawes) and her all-too-devoted husband, played by Eamonn Walker.

"When these two people lie down next to each other," says Walker in a recent interview, "they do not see color. These two people love each other. The rest is in YOUR head.

"These two people felt PASS-ionately," he goes on, giving the word all available emphasis. "They couldn't keep their hands off each other. If they had been left alone, you would have seen one of the great love stories of all time. But they got messed with."

A role he couldn't refuse

Of course, this isn't the first production set in the modern era. Just last year, the feature film "O" remade Othello as a black basketball star at an all-white Southern prep school.

This newest "Othello" was conceived by Andrew Davies, writer of numerous "Masterpiece Theatre" teleplays including "House of Cards," whose deliciously wicked prime minister would give Iago goosebumps.

Walker heaps praise on Davies for making him an Othello he couldn't refuse: a more explicit love story blended with modern-day racism in his own hometown. "This was the 'Othello' I wanted to do."

Born in London, Walker (whose given name is pronounced A-mon) began in show business with a local dance company. Then he landed a role in a stage musical, which led to steady acting work on British television.

In particular, he was featured on a pair of series created by Lynda LaPlante (best known for "Prime Suspect"), who in 1997 insisted he try out for "Oz," a project being developed for HBO by her friend Tom Fontana.

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