Remona AlyWednesday 07 November 2018 The Guardian
Shakespeare can help British Muslims feel less excluded
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.”
And yet a recent poll commissioned by Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) showed that nearly half of British adults (48%) agree that prejudice against Islam makes it difficult to be a Muslim in Britain. No matter how “integrated” Muslims are, they are still regarded by a large number of people as outsiders. According to another report from the Muslim Council of Britain, 62% of Britons think rising numbers of Muslims in the UK “weaken”’ the national identity.
With attitudes this ambivalent, Shakespeare’s play could feel chillingly prophetic.When the contemporary backdrop is one of rising nationalism and populism, tensions over immigration, struggling religious minorities, and such movements as Black Lives Matter, Othello, from a certain perspective, holds startling parallels. In this new production, Othello is a black Muslim general, hiding his faith to assimilate, and fighting on behalf of the white colonial Christian state whose citizens regard him with conflicting views (“devil”; “valiant Moor”). This mirrors the modern notion that even the “good” or “worthy” immigrant can never wholly belong.
Then there is Iago, the villain who deceives Othello about his wife Desdemona’s fidelity and brings about a psychological downfall built on paranoia. Read: Iago is the fake news that feeds racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia – infiltrating minds and turning us on our own humanity.
The play’s identity politics, cultural assimilation and Muslim dimension are not just concocted to look woke, these themes have been in Shakespeare all along. Richard Twyman, the production’s artistic director, says he was struck by the word “Moor”, which, in Shakespeare’s day, was synonomous with “Muslim”. “It urges you to view the play with a certain lens – it makes us aware of many of the issues we see in society today reflected back to us through Shakespeare’s words.”
What is crucial to remember is that the relationship between Islam and Britain, although complex, goes much further back than modern history. How uplifting that Twyman wants Muslims to see themselves in Shakespeare. We can only hope that this unique and arguably more authentic approach to Shakespeare may serve to help Muslims to feel less isolated.
Now, as then, there is an urgency for all of us to explore themes of masculinity, power, feminism, misogyny, race, and identity – political, spiritual and cultural. The Othello Project, accompanying the play, proposes to do just that. Supported by Amal, a programme of the Said Foundation, the project documents creative responses to the play from visual artists and spoken word poets, while journalists debate the themes in a series of podcasts that feature local voices in the communities of each toured city.
Such artistic reinventions are vital to challenging the prejudices surrounding Muslims or indeed any minority. Othello conveys what it means to be British, what it’s like to carry multiple identities, where society stands and where it might be heading. With more productions like this, making sense of who we really are can be a more exciting, representative and relevant story.