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SINCE William Shakespeare penned Othello in 1603, its central protagonist has always taken the form of the ethnic other. The ethnically ambiguous ‘Moorish’ general has been melted and moulded into variations of black, white and everything in between depending on the ethnic agenda of the day; a theme that was...

SINCE William Shakespeare penned Othello in 1603, its central protagonist has always taken the form of the ethnic other.

The ethnically ambiguous ‘Moorish’ general has been melted and moulded into variations of black, white and everything in between depending on the ethnic agenda of the day; a theme that was surely top of mind for Richard Twyman when he took on the play for the English Touring Theatre.

But rather than marking him out for the colour of his skin, Twyman’s Othello, played by Dalston local Abraham Popoola, is ‘othered’ for his religion, as a Muslim in a Christian country.

It is an incarnation that brings the 400-year-old play screeching into the 21st century, particularly, as Popoola points out, in London’s East End, where it is currently showing at Wilton’s Music Hall, after debuting at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres in February.

“It’s so significant to be doing this play here in Tower Hamlets where there is such a large Muslim population,” he says in a Q&A on the Wilton’s website.

“We overheard conversations in Bristol that suggested we had managed to communicate something to Muslim audiences that they had never seen before, so it’s going to be fascinating to see what responses we get at Wilton’s.”

So fundamental is Twyman’s exploration of race and religion throughout the play that he and journalist Abdul-Rehman Malik have teamed up with Muslim arts organisation the Amal Project for The Othello Project, a series of events that continues the conversation on and off the stage.

The programme, which kicked off on 20 May and continues for the duration of the play’s run, ranges from speciality food events, hip hop poetry, photography exhibitions, panel discussions, as well as a podcast series exploring what the play means in Britain today.

Malik, the project’s creative consultant, said the programme offers a unique platform to voices that are often
ignored.

“Richard Twyman’s Othello breaks new ground by demonstrating how disturbingly relevant and profound the play is to our times,” he says.

“It shows us the political, social, cultural and religious faultlines that we are contending with today and offers a searing critique of xenophobia and patriarchy, empire and privilege.

“The Othello Project presents a series of cutting-edge artistic responses to the play and creates a dynamic circle of art, music, dialogue and theatre that will engage, delight and even outrage audiences – just what good theatre is supposed to do.”

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