Monday, January 28, 2002

PBS' 'Othello' takes 21st-century spin

The Associated Press

        Chances are you've encountered Othello — at least, the Cliffs Notes edition. You remember: That age-old drama about a noble black general; his wife, Desdemona; and his calculating crony, Iago, who makes good (if that's the word) on a pledge to twist Desdemona's virtue into “the net that shall enmesh them all.” Now, thanks to Masterpiece Theatre, Shakespeare's timeless tale of jealousy writ large is unfolding in the timeliest of settings: New Scotland Yard in the 21st century.

        This time around, John Othello is London's first black police commissioner, Dessie is his bride, and Ben Jago serves as his trusted aide-de-camp who, by undermining Othello in both the workplace and the marriage bed, aims to poach Othello's plush job for himself.

        Media-savvy overlords. A bugged men's room. Even (shades of Monica Lewinsky!) a DNA test meant to prove Dessie's infidelity. This Othello, airing 9 tonight (Channels 48, 54, 16), has plenty of contemporary touches.

        Adding even more currency, it draws on a real-life cause celebre: the 1993 death while in police custody of a black London teen named Stephen Lawrence. That incident rocked the nation, where Lawrence lives on as a symbol of institutionalized racism among the police force.

        In Othello, a black man's death at the hands of white cops nearly sparks a riot, quelled only when Othello appeals to the crowd in what happens to be his old neighborhood. An instant hero, Othello is appointed police commissioner — leapfrogging over Jago, his former mentor.

        Thus does Othello, however qualified, unwittingly become a political pawn, a racial token and Jago's sitting duck.

        But that overcomplicates things. Sizing up the tragedy, Jago (played to reptilian perfection by Christopher Eccleston) admonishes the audience: “Don't talk to me about race, don't talk to me about politics. It was about love. Simple as that.”

        It's about corrosive love between best friends. And about the love of a lifetime that dooms Dessie (the luminous Keeley Hawes) and her all-too-devoted husband, played by Eamonn Walker.

        “When these two people lie down next to each other,” Mr. Walker says, “they do not see color. These two people love each other. The rest is in YOUR head.

        “These two people felt PASS-ionately,” he goes on, giving the word all available emphasis. “They couldn't keep their hands off each other. If they had been left alone, you would have seen one of the great love stories of all time. But they got messed with.”

        Of course, this isn't the first production set in the modern era. Just last year, the feature film O remade Othello as a black basketball star at an all-white Southern prep school.

        This newest Othello was conceived by Andrew Davies, writer of numerous Masterpiece Theatre teleplays including House of Cards, whose deliciously wicked prime minister would give Iago goose bumps.

        Mr. Walker heaps praise on Davies for making him an Othello he couldn't refuse: a more explicit love story blended with modern-day racism in his own hometown. “This was the Othello I wanted to do.”

        Born in London, Mr. Walker (whose given name is pronounced A-mon) began in show business with a local dance company. Then he landed a role in a stage musical, which led to steady acting work on British television.

        In particular, he was featured on a pair of series created by Lynda LaPlante (best known for Prime Suspect), who in 1997 insisted he try out for Oz, a project being developed for HBO by her friend Tom Fontana.

        This spring Mr. Walker returns to New York to film the sixth season of this gritty prison drama, now airing Sundays. He plays inmate Kareem Said, a Muslim leader with ferocious cool.

        “When I got the role, I knew nothing about being a Muslim,” Mr. Walker recalls. “I knew nothing about Black America, except via television.”

        He found a Black Muslim in Harlem to advise him. He also found a voice coach to help him learn the U.S. accent he felt the role required.

        Doing Oz, Mr. Walker says, has changed his life.

        “It gave me a safe environment as an actor,” he explains. “Tom said, "I'm going to ask you to go places as an actor that you will feel uncomfortable with. But I want you to trust that I will take care of you.' ”

        Mr. Walker did. So did Mr. Fontana.

        “There's always a pair of cupped hands on the base of your spine from Tom, from the other actors, so you feel safe to jump, to experiment and take risks,” Mr. Walker says. “That changed my whole world as an actor.”

        Clearly, lessons learned from Oz were on Mr. Walker's mind for the all-consuming weeks he spent shooting Othello.

        “It was intense,” he says, shaking his head. “A vacuum sucking you right in. The only other thing I can remember that I did at the same time is, I bought my first home. I was on the phone between takes.”

        Zounds! “I'm surprised I don't have an ulcer.”


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