If Hamlet was right, and the stage is a mirror held up to nature, then why is our reflection so white? In a multicultural society like Australia’s, it is shameful that our theatre doesn’t genuinely reflect our racial diversity. Othello remains by far the least performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies in this country. We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t symptomatic of a great unease.
Ray Chong Nee is a Samoan Australian, and has found the sheer fact of being cast as the Moor in Bell Shakespeare’s upcoming production (directed by the company's artistic director Peter Evans) something of a wake-up call. “When I was younger, I used to wish I was Caucasian. Looking at Othello has made me more proud of the skin I’m in, but also more aware of the tyranny of otherness.”
Othello might be the noblest of generals, expansive and loyal, but there is a sense that he will never really belong; it’s something he’s internalised, and something his subordinate Iago (played here by Yalin Ozucelik) will exploit to the great man’s ruin. It’s not something that Chong Nee has to conjure in rehearsal.
“I’ve had racism hurled at me. I thought when I was 14 that everything was cool, that I was accepted in this country. And then this car went by and someone yelled ‘Go home, you fucking n*****!’ It was my reality check; you’ve got dark skin.”
Othello’s skin colour has been a highly contested subject from the beginning. The Moors were traditionally differentiated by religion as much as race, although it seems clear Shakespeare intended his hero to be black. Chong Nee will play the role as a Samoan man in a contemporary Australian setting, which alters the context but arguably strengthens the resonances for local audiences.
“The role of Othello has been played professionally by a Samoan man precisely twice; once in the States and once in New Zealand.” Never in Australia. It’s a responsibility he is almost ready to take on. “I’m shit scared,” he says, grinning.
Chong Nee finds it extraordinary that Shakespeare was able to inhabit the mind of an outsider like Othello, given that his own experience of difference must have been fairly limited. “It’s crazy. It’s like he suddenly thought, ‘I feel like stretching myself…I know, I’ll do a black guy’." It’s wondrous and disturbing that this “black guy” still haunts the Western tradition, forcing us to see something unpalatable and unresolved about ourselves in Hamlet’s mirror.