ST. PÖLTEN, Austria — “Speak of me as I am,” OthelloIn the final scene of the film, he urges. Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet for centuries, those words — a plea for accurate representation — were spoken, by and large, by white actors.
Nicholas Monu, who stars in a new production of “Othello,” running through Dec. 4 at Landestheater Niederösterreich here, is pretty sure that he is only the second BlackPerformer to perform the role AustrianTheater history. TheThe pioneering era was almost 170 years ago in 1853. African-AmericanActor Ira AldridgeHeld VienneseThe audience is spellbound by the MoorOf Venice.
AsDirected by the young Black BritishDirector Rikki Henry, this new “Othello” breaks ground in a country where artists of color remain a rarity onstage.
TheMajority of Austria’s population of around nine million is white and was born here, although the percentage of foreigners and people with migration backgrounds has been rising steadily in recent years. LikeIts larger and more ethnically diverse neighbor is Germany, AustriaThere is a strong system of state-funded theatres that employ full time acting ensembles. This country is overwhelmingly white.
With its new “Othello,” the LandestheaterIt is a great way to start a discussion about racism in Austrian society and the need for diversity on the country’s stages. AccordingThere has never been a better theater. German-language production of “Othello” with both a BlackThere have been director and star before. It is significant that the first one is not taking place in a major urban cultural center but in St. Pölten, a small city 40 miles outside Vienna.
“It’s often said that innovation comes from the provinces,” Marie Rötzer, the Landestheater’s artistic director since 2016, said in an interview. RecentlyHer playhouse has been a success, with stellar productions, including the 2019 staging of The Crucible. Nobel PrizeAward-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s allegory of the Trump presidency, “Am Königsweg,” and a 2020 “Hamlet” that was Henry’s house debut, and which won a NetroyThe most prestigious AustrianTheatre award.
Although ShakespeareThis has been long admired in the German-speaking world, “Othello” is a comparative rarity on its theater programs.
“Normally, nobody here wants to touch it,” said Tim BreyvogelThe GermanActor who plays IagoIn an interview following a recent matinee performance. In the wrong hands, he said, an “Othello” production can legitimize stereotypes about Black men. And then there’s the issue of casting, he added: EvenIn AustriaMost theaters now recognize that blackface in the title role is unacceptable.
Rötzer said she knew her theater’s “Othello” must have a BlackActor in the title character. After Henry’s success with “Hamlet,” she approached him about directing the show. HenryAnd Monu’s experiences as Black men helped the theater to “develop an awareness about how to treat topics that are part of the Black community,” she said.
“With this ‘Othello,’ we’re addressing wounds: the wounds of racism, hostility towards refugees, xenophobia and the isolationism that you often find in Austria,” Rötzer said.
Henry, 33, said in an interview that it was “a challenge to try to work out what the story would now tell in Austria — because, of course, race relations are different in AustriaThey are more than they are in England.”
HisA strikingly modern production is set in professional boxing, where Othellois a heavyweight prizefighter. “My idea was of someone who was incredibly lonely and someone who was isolated,” Henry said.
ThatThe director stated that all people can relate to feelings of exclusion or alienation, regardless of skin color. TheBoxing frame was another motivator Iago’s machinations and reveal the character’s racism, he added. “Iago’s manipulations and reasonings became more alive, because boxing is so competitive and relies on intrigue,” Henry said.
The Black Lives MatterWhile he was working on the show last year and movement was heating up, HenryHe said that he was careful to not take the production in a too political direction. “We didn’t want to say to the audience, ‘You’re racist!’” Henry said. “Theater isn’t supposed to be accusing anyone. It’s supposed to be supporting and maybe ennobling them in some way.”
“Maybe it just sparks some interesting questions that you haven’t asked before, like, ‘How do I treat that brown person who delivers my mail every morning?’” he added.
Monu56 year old, who was born in NigeriaBut lives in Salzburg, Austria, stated that racism is AustrianSociety lies largely beneath the surface. “People don’t give it a lot of thought. There hasn’t been that journey that AmericaSlavery forced him to make these decisions. Jim Crow, etc. — or that GermanyDue to the Second World War,” he said.
“It’s not an aggressive form of racism,” he added. “You’re just not taken seriously or not seen as on quite the same level as a human being.”
MonuActor, who started his acting career in England, is an ex-ensemble member of two of most significant theaters of the United States. GermanThe -speaking World: Schaubühne in BerlinThe BurgtheaterIn Vienna. YetAlthough he had enjoyed the ensemble system’s benefits, he stated that it would need to updated if it was to continue to be useful. Reflect the multiethnic reality of today EuropeToday.
“It’s a fantastic system, designed for brothers like this,” he said, gesturing toward Breyvogel, who sat next to him during the interview, “to be able to go from here to Berlin to Vienna, and be able to fit straight in, because the system is pretty much the same everywhere.”
InThings must change in order to be successful. AustrianTheater administrators and audiences need to be more familiar with actors of color and different accents onstage. Monu said. HeHe saw some encouraging signs, and he added: WhenHe joined the BurgtheaterHe was the only person to be able to do this in the 2000s. BlackActor in the ensemble; today there are three.
“If you’re going to be truly diverse, then you’ve got to open up your doors towards people who don’t sound like you, look like you,” Monu said. “Sometimes the journey’s going to be unpleasant or uncomfortable.”
Monu said he hoped that this “Othello” might inspire local audiences take that journey. “I can try my best to touch as many people as I can, just by saying, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m the first Black guy you’ve ever seen onstage — and speaking German.’”
Source: NY Times