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By 20th January 2017 0 Comments Read More →

CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE INTERVIEW: Andrew Hilton of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory talks envy and jealousy, and when white actors used brown paint to play Othello – plus the day his gun fell apart live on stage when playing a sheriff in The Rainmaker

Andrew Hilton directing in Living Quarters

Children’s Theatre Magazine’s Harry Mottram contacted the artistic director of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Andrew Hilton about what school children studying English Literature and drama can take from this year’s two productions

What themes can school students of English literature, history and drama take from your production of Othello?

I always think of OTHELLO as – in part – a study of the contrasting ‘personalities’ of envy and jealousy. Iago’s envy – of Cassio, of Othello himself, perhaps even of Desdemona too – and Othello’s jealousy, which leads him to kill Desdemona.
Jealousy tends to be volcanic, as it is in this play, and open, visible. Envy can be more hidden, and therefore more corrosive – perhaps even more dangerous. Certainly, here it is real and instrumental, and provokes an unfounded jealousy. It has often been maintained that Iago’s envy of Cassio, and resentment of Othello’s choice of Cassio as his Lieutenant, cannot be enough to explain the ‘evil’ of his actions. I think that underestimates this corrosive quality of envy.
The director of this production, Richard Twyman, is particularly interested in the play’s modern resonances – in racial and cultural terms – and with Othello’s identity as a ‘Moor’, namely a man born into Islam. The play tells us that Othello has been baptised a Christian; whether that conversion was profound and sincere, or merely pragmatic, is an issue to be addressed in rehearsal.
Historically, there are fascinating aspects to Elizabethan England’s relationship with Islam. The visit of the Moroccan Ambassador in 1600 (Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun has often been cited as Shakespeare’s inspiration for the character of Othello) concerned a possible military alliance between that Muslim state and Protestant England against Roman Catholic Spain.
Richard will be emphasising the nature of Cyprus as a Western military outpost in his casting of a Syrian actor as its Governor, Montano, and an actress of Turkish descent (I believe) as Bianca.

Othello is being staged at the Tobacco Factory

In your life time has the way Othello has been staged changed to reflect changes of attitude in society?

Yes, very much so. As a teenager in 1967 I covered myself in dark brown make-up to play Othello in a school production – quite acceptable in the theatre then, but quite rightly not so any more – though a BBC production much later, in 1981, saw the white actor Anthony Hopkins likewise applying the makeup to play the title role.
There have been doubts expressed about the play’s racial politics – concerns that it presents Othello as racially susceptible to jealousy and violence – and western society has rightly become more sensitive to such concerns. I don’t believe it is a valid criticism of the play, and I would cite the portrayal of sexual jealousy in Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE in my support. In that play Leontes – certainly a white westerner – is more crazily jealous than Othello, and what’s more, his jealousy arises entirely from within himself, without malicious deception on another’s part.

Andrew Hilton

Where do you start in terms of rehearsals and then proceed towards the first performance?

My own practice is to begin with what we call ‘table-work’. We sit, reading through the play very carefully, line by line, making sure that we all understand every syllable. Shakespeare’s language is often thought ‘difficult’, but if the actors truly understand what they say, it is amazing how easily it can communicate with a modern audience.
That’s not to say we don’t occasionally ‘tweak’ the language – replace a few obsolete words or phrases, particularly the ones that even the academic editors can’t explain!
From the table – that may be three or four days of study – we get up and start to ‘play’ with the scenes, exploring interpretative possibilities, and then gradually begin to shape it. Some directors insist on ‘blocking’ the play – deciding on all the moves in every scene – very early in the process, but that is seen increasingly as old-fashioned (I personally regard it as a complete waste of time), with directors more usually allowing the choreography of the play to emerge naturally.

Moliere's drama Tarfuff is the second production in the season

Which is your favourite Shakespeare play and why?

It is very often the one I am working on at the time – or, if I’m having a difficult time with it, then the play I might have chosen to do instead!
MACBETH is probably my favourite text – does anything else take you into the appalled mind of a murderer so completely as that play? – though I don’t think it is Shakespeare’s best play. It is extraordinarily difficult to do, and I often feel I would rather read it than go and see it. KING LEAR is far more successful and probably Shakespeare’s greatest achievement for the theatre. Beyond that, I love so many of the plays, I really couldn’t choose, beyond saying that I have a particular liking for TROILUS & CRESSIDA.

Your first experience of live theatre?

It would have been in the 1950s (I was born in 1947) and in an amateur theatre in my home town, Bolton. My parents were both heavily involved as actors and directors (my mother was a particularly good director) and, in the absence of any professional theatre in the town, their company did an amazing range of British and continental plays (never a musical), from Shakespeare to Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, Pinter and many playwrights now far less fashionable. What I first saw I can’t remember, though I think I saw HAMLET when I was rather too young and more troubled than I should have been by the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Lawrence Olivier as Othello

Funny things that have happened during a production you have been involved in?

There’s a line from Gertrude in HAMLET;
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off
and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
In a student production I was playing Horatio in, this came out one night as:
Good Hamlet, cast thy coloured nighty off
and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
I don’t think anyone but me (and probably the actress) noticed. We may already have sent the audience to sleep – it was a dull production.
When I first came to Bristol I was in an American play, THE RAINMAKER, about a man who appeared in a small western town during a drought and claimed to be able to make it rain. I played the Sheriff and at the climax of the story had to do that very traditional thing – pull my gun from my holster and say “You’re under arrest!”
I pulled the gun, which promptly ‘broke’ – the barrel dropped forward and pointed at the floor. The audience and the cast (all except me) collapsed into waves of laughter that seemed to go on and on and on. I kept a straight face until I was walking home to my digs on my own when I kept breaking into uncontrollable giggles – people must have thought I was mad.
If you could be a character in a Shakespeare play – who would you be?

If you mean, if I could actually be that person, rather than as an actor play the part on stage, then I think I would like to shed nearly half a century and be Orlando in AS YOU LIKE IT.
It you mean play a role on stage – Orlando would certainly not be an option – I might like to have a go at Prospero in THE TEMPEST.

BRISTOL The Tobacco Factory, Raleigh Rd, Bristol BS3 1TF; 0117 902 0344; and OTHELLO Thu 16 Feb-Sat 1 April 2017. Age: 11+ OTHELLO by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Twyman. OTHELLO will tour to Exeter Northcott Theatre 9-13 May, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 16 May-3 June (Public booking opens 27 February)….. And Germany after the Bristol season between 9 May and 11 June 2017. We are pleased to co-produce the tour with English Touring Theatre. TARTUFF Thu 6 April-Sat 6 May 2017. Age: 11+ TARTUFFE by Dominic Power and Andrew Hilton after Molière. Directed by Andrew Hilton. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory stf 2017 Season co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres. A radically new version of Molière’s great comedy that should appeal to senior school students who are studying English Literature and drama.

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