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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Laurence Olivier’s blackface Othello is shameful – but to erase it from history is pure folly

Olivier didn’t want the Moor to look like a “credulous idiot”, and combed through the play with director John Dexter before deciding to do it, with Frank Finlay cast as the scheming Iago. Even then, there were worries. Orson Welles – who directed and starred in Othello in 1951 – counselled Tynan that “Larry’s a natural tenor, and Othello’s a natural baritone”. Olivier himself, in his autobiography, acknowledged as much: “Othello has to have a velvet bass voice”, he told Tynan. He “decided to have a bash at that voice,” resolving to get into the rehearsal rooms hours before the others “and do my yelling before any offices had started work”. There were then weeks of voice lessons that resulted in his voice becoming, Tynan said, “an octave lower”.

Olivier limbered up for his assault on the role like an athlete – jogging along Brighton seafront, training at the gym. According to ‘Olivier on Screen’ (1979) – he patterned his vocal rhythms “on West Indians he had studied in the street and pubs of London with the shrewd eye of a mimic”. On a David Frost TV show, Sammy Davis Jr revealed that Olivier had been in the wings of the Prince of Wales theatre “at least four or five times a week” to study his routine. Even Olivier’s entrance, fondling a red rose, was modelled on the way Davis played with his microphone. Indicating how Olivier had copied his way of moving, he told the audience: “I’m so complimented!”

Tynan kept a rehearsal log and described the first read-through as “shattering. Normally on these occasions the actors do not exert themselves. They sit in a circle and mumble. Into this polite gathering Olivier tossed a hand-grenade. He fell on the text like a tiger… At the power of his voice, the windows shook and my scalp tingled…. Like the cast, I was awed. We were learning what it meant to be faced with a great classical actor in full spate – one whose vocal range was so immense that by a single new inflexion he could point the way to a whole new interpretation. Every speech, for Olivier, is like a mass of marble at which the sculptor chips away until its essential form and meaning are revealed.”

Tynan kept notes of Olivier’s progress in rehearsals. It’s possible to share in his awe, over 55 years on, when he describes the epileptic fit of Act III. “The symptoms of epilepsy (the long, shuddering breaths; the head flung back; the jaw thrust out) are painstakingly reproduced… he falls thrashing to the ground like a landed barracuda.”

The procedure for getting fully into character was laborious in the extreme. According to the superb 2007 biography by Anthony Holden: “His lifelong obsession with make-up reached its apogee… [He] took two and a half hours each night to transform himself into Othello, and an hour afterwards to re-emerge.” The consummate stage creature covered his body head to toe in a dark stain, overlaid with make-up, which was then polished til it gleamed. The palms of his hands, and soles of his feet, and his tongue were dyed with incarnadine; special drops accentuated the whites of his eyes. And so on. “He even varnished his fingernails to give them a pallid blue lustre”.

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