Othello capsule review: 1981, BBC Collected Works, directed by Jonathan Miller [Hopkins/Hoskins]

A full review will come as part of an overview of the videos available, but for now…

In 1981, as part of the BBC Collected Works series, producer Jonathan Miller kicked off the fourth season with his own directed version of Othello with Anthony Hopkins as the Moor, and Bob Hoskins as Iago. If I’m not mistaken, this is the last time a televised production used a white actor in the role of Othello.

courtesy players-Shakespeare.com

With apologies to Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder, Hopkins doesn’t go “full minstrel.” Blackface, no. Brownface and swarthy, yeah. (Hopkins is no Olivier… but that’s a story–review–for another day) Despite the inclusion of the more “black”-ish references in the text, Miller and Hopkins decide to play up the Moor/Muslim angle here rather than the racial angle.

Iago, too, takes a different tack in performance as well: less evil villain, Hoskins plays him as a really malevolent Puck, impish, seemingly enjoying the chaos he causes simply for the enjoyment of the chaos itself.

It’s beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes have a painterly quality to them (with Miller citing El Greco as an inspiration). Sonically, however, one does have to strain: Hopkins uses a halting delivery (maybe trying to give us an aural example to Othello’s outsider-ness), Hoskins uses a thick Cockney accent, and in the scene where Iago questions Cassio about Bianca, we’re put in Othello’s place, not able to hear much of what transpires. Needless to say, not all these choices work.

As this is the BBC Collected works version, costuming was as close to Elizabethan as possible, and the script cut as little as possible (save for the exclusion of the two Clown scenes). These small edits drain the play of any humor (even the possible flirty/bawdy scene between Iago and Desdemona is played straight), and the lack of many more edits than those make for a long play: It runs longer than three hours. This play is slow, sometimes excruciatingly so.

Hopkins’ performance is interesting. I wouldn’t call it altogether successful, however. Maybe subconsciously, I was a little put off by the brownface; his “white man’s ‘fro” didn’t help matters, either. Hoskins’ Iago, too, is more interesting than definitive. A cackling psychopath is one possible interpretation, but I’m not sure it works.

Verdict: Good. If you’ve got the patience, and you’re a completist or want to see the last (maybe) white Othello or a wild Iago, give it a gander. Otherwise, I think you’re ok to skip this one.

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