A Rare ‘Othello’ Puts the Spotlight on Race

ST. PÖLTEN, Austria — “Speak of me as I am,” Othello urges in the wrenching final scene of 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 the Landestheater Niederösterreich here, is pretty sure that he is only the second Black performer to play the role in Austrian theater history. The last time was nearly 170 years ago, in 1853, when the pioneering African-American actor Ira Aldridge held Viennese audiences spellbound as the Moor of Venice.

As directed by the young Black British director Rikki Henry, this new “Othello” breaks ground in a country where artists of color remain a rarity onstage.

The majority 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. Like its larger and more ethnically varied neighbor Germany, Austria has a robust system of state-funded theaters that employ full-time acting ensembles; these, like the country at large, are overwhelmingly white.

With its new “Othello,” the Landestheater is jump-starting a conversation about racism in Austrian society and the need for diversity on the country’s stages. According to the theater, there has never been a German-language production of “Othello” with both a Black director and star before, and it seems significant that the first is taking place not in a major cultural metropolis, 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. Recently, her playhouse has been punching above its weight, with productions including a stellar 2019 staging of the Nobel Prize-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 Netroy, the prestigious Austrian theater award.

Although Shakespeare has long been venerated in the German-speaking world, “Othello” is a comparative rarity on its theater programs.

“Normally, nobody here wants to touch it,” said Tim Breyvogel, the German actor who plays Iago, in an interview after 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: Even in Austria, most theaters now realize that presenting the title role in blackface was unacceptable.

Rötzer said she knew her theater’s “Othello” must have a Black actor in the title role. After Henry’s success with “Hamlet,” she approached him about directing the show. Henry and 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 Austria than they are in England.”

His strikingly contemporary production is set in the world of professional boxing, where Othello is a heavyweight prizefighter. “My idea was of someone who was incredibly lonely and someone who was isolated,” Henry said.

That sense of exclusion and alienation, the director said, was something that everyone, regardless of their skin color, could relate to. The boxing frame also helped to motivate 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 Matter movement was heating up as he worked on the show last year, but Henry said he was careful not to take the production in an overtly 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.

Monu, 56, who was born in Nigeria but lives in Salzburg, Austria, said that racism in Austrian society largely lay beneath the surface. “People don’t give it a lot of thought. There hasn’t been that journey that America has been forced to make, because of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. — or that Germany has been forced to make, because of 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.”

Monu, who began his acting career in England, is a former ensemble member of two of the most significant theaters in the German-speaking world: the Schaubühne in Berlin and the Burgtheater in Vienna. Yet despite having benefited from the ensemble system, he said it would need updating if it hoped to reflect the increasingly multiethnic reality of Europe today.

“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.”

In order for things to change, Austrian theater administrators and audiences will need to become more familiar with seeing actors of color and hearing different accents onstage, Monu said. He saw some encouraging signs, he added: When he joined the Burgtheater in the early 2000s, he was the only Black actor 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.’”

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