A Case of Less Is Moor

Independent on Sunday, January 1996

Bracciano, near Rome, last July

Many people in Britain believe that they are in the middle of a heatwave. They wouldn't think so if they were here. We're in a medieval castle, high on a hill near Rome, with walls so thick that you could hold a dinner- party on the window-sill: the sort of building you can rely on to stay cool. And it's 98 degrees in here. On top of the ordinary incandescence of Italy in July, there are rows of high-powered lights, tables full of candles, and braziers blazing away, head-high, at intervals of three feet. Then there's the fact that the room, a banqueting hall called the Sala dei Cesari, has about 180 people in it. The heat is just about bearable in the T-shirt and shorts that the crew are wearing. But they are outnumbered by people in costume -heavy leather breeches and boots for the men, long skirts and fitted bodices for the women. "I'm from Brazil," says an extra, from beneath a carnival head-dress. "And I never been this hot." She got into the movies by accident - she really wanted to bean air hostess. That way, the hours would have been no worse, and at least she would have had air-conditioning.

The actors move little and deliberately, even between takes. They have their different ways of dealing with the temperature. Some swig mineral water from little bottles, though finding a cold one means taking a five- minute walk down to the canteen, wedged in the moat (which is dry). Others have miniature fans, battery-operated, which they hold daintily to their necks. The stars - the talent, as they' are called here - have full-size fans, and flunkies to hold them. But one of them doesn't bother fighting the heat: no fan, no water, no sweat. He doesn't walk around - he lopes. He doesn't talk much - he broods. To pass the time, he performs a series of stretches. It' s as if he needs to warm up. He has black skin, no hair, a trim beard, insouciant eyes, an orange shirt, and two tattoos on his scalp. The new Othello is a cool customer.

His name is Laurence Fishburne. He used to be Larry, but "Laurence is respect". He made his debut as a 16-year-old in Apocalypse Now, was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his blistering portrayal of Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It, and equally acclaimed for his part in Boyz N the Hood. His Othello has already made history. He is the first black man to play the role on the big screen. The English-speaking cinema has tackled Othello only twice before, in 1951 and 1965, first with Orson Welles as the Moor, then with Laurence Olivier. It's time the role went to someone who doesn't have to paint himself black: time for a Bard N the Hood.

Eight scenes are down to be shot today. The first is the wedding banquet, at which Desdemona performs a bridal dance, and Othello, bewitched, replies by standing on the table and dancing some steps of his own, slow and sensual, with more than a dash of flamenco. Then they dance together, in a sort of quadrille, and others join in. If your knowledge of Othello doesn't stretch to this scene, don't be too ashamed: it' s not in the play.

This is an Othello for the non-purist. The adapter-director, a boyish Englishman in baggy shorts called Oliver Parker, is a Shakespearian actor who knows the play well enough to be prepared to change it. More than 60 per cent of the text has been dumped; a few bits have even been added. If the film fails, it won't be for lack of nerve.

Desdemona is played by Irene Jacob, luminous star of The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Red. Iago is Kenneth Branagh, an apparently obvious choice with a twist - he has never played a villain in a major production. The combination of the three is risky. Have you heard the one about the Anglo-Irishman, the American and the Swiss-Frenchwoman, playing two Venetians and a noble Moor?

The differences between them run deeper than nationality. Fishburne exudes sexuality, charisma and remoteness. Branagh, currently the world's leading screen Shakespearian, oozes know-how, but also warmth - he'll talk to anyone, even a journalist. Jacob brings beauty and grace; she smiles a lot, and members of the crew smile back as they dab at her make-up and tweak her hair extensions. All fine actors, all aged between 29 and 35, they represent three varieties of stardom: the screen-filler, the supreme character actor, and the art-house princess.

Earlier two men in suits were roaming the lower reaches of the castle, looking incongruous. They turned out to be the production's insurers. If they have done their job, their biggest individual premiums will be for Fishburne's body, Branagh's brain,and Jacob's face.

How the three of them play off each other, the location day-tripper has no way of telling. But a few things can be said with confidence about the finished film. As well as historic, it will be handsome and topical. The look is interesting. It is in period - 1570, just before the Battle of Lepanto - and therefore has Costume Drama written all over it. But it's not like any other costume drama that comes to mind. "I went in with a colour bar," says the costume designer, a 35-year-old English woman called Caroline Harris. "The first one was red: let's bar red velvet, let's not get involved with damask. And with that came no deep navy velvet, no deep greens, none of the fairly typical things you see in costume drama." In general, she has tried to"keep it simple". The production designer, Tim Harvey, echoes her: "I wanted to resist making the film into a pageant. I tried to cool the design, to avoid a look that would jar with the intimacy of the story."

The topicality has been generously supplied by OJ Simpson, whose trial is on television here every night. A successful black man, moving in largely white circles, stands accused of jealously murdering his white wife. This means the stars will be spared the oldest question in the book - the one about Shakespeare's relevance. Instead, they'll be asked about OJ's relevance.

Film people often say that film-making is mostly hanging around. Now I believe them. At lunchtime, we are still on the first of the eight scenes. Every 40 minutes or so, a folksy tune plays over the speakers and Irene Jacob does her slow-motion pirouette. Sometimes Fishburne does his flamenco bit too. Then the director or cinematographer decides on a change of angle, and all the lights have to be shifted. Maybe this is why they say "Lights! Camera! Action!" - if the lights are in place, the rest is straightforward.

The play is not alone in being shorn. Branagh has exchanged Dr Frankenstein' s bouffant hair for a crewcut, and finally looks more Hollywood than Stratford- upon-Avon. He has a thin beard and a light tan, which makes his pale blue eyes paler, bluer and harder. He's spent the morning strolling in the background of each shot (Iago doesn't dance), wearing an expression of menacing mateyness. Having done Shakespeare for the cinema only as adapter- director-producer-star, on Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, he says he's glad to be merely a player. "Quite frankly, Oliver can have the problems of all those people in there and the heat and everything. I've spent most of the day ligging about."

Later, Fishburne will say how laid-back Branagh is - "He's a genius cat". But that's not how it feels to Branagh. "I've been much more frightened this time round. The stage-fright, the general nerves have been intense. Maybe I'm just getting older and more frightened. But when I'm directing, I just go into the acting in rather a free way."

His next film, long cherished, will be Hamlet, in which he resumes his full set of hyphens. "I wanna do the whole Hamlet, which'll be the first time that's been done - three-and-a-half hours to sit through." For a moment there, his voice veered across the Atlantic; as if he were still pitching the idea to the bosses at Castle Rock, who have put up most of the budget for Othello ($11m) and will soon do the same for Hamlet ($16m). "But that'll be the last time I act and direct. It is tremendously time- consuming. You just don't have a life. At times it seems pretty stupid, because it's so exhausting."

He says this haltingly, the only time in 40 minutes that he is less than fluent. In hindsight, it sounds as if he was thinking about his marriage; 11 weeks later, he and Emma Thompson announced their separation. This was a group interview and, as it happened, one of the other reporters now mentioned Thompson.

"Will your wife be in this Hamlet?"

"I hope so. She's sort of between parts - too old for Ophelia, probably too young to play my mother." The line gets a laugh, and the subject changes.

Things said on location can be hopelessly unilluminating - the reporter caught in a hail of mutual admiration. Branagh is no more likely than the next man to lay into his colleagues, but his praise is salted with precision. On Fishburne and Jacob: "They give the impression, on screen, that they can't keep their hands off each other."

On Oliver Parker: "He has a strong personal vision, which is what you need to film Shakespeare. He sees the play very much as an erotic thriller. He concentrates on the psychological motivation, the violence of Othello and Desdemona's love, the newness, the precarious nature of it. Like this stuff we've been watching today - celebration, excitement, hot passion close to the surface, lots of sex - heightened sensibilities which could be pushed in another direction. He's cut a lot of stuff - a lot of what Iago says is repetitive, and there's some terrible comedy, awful bloody clown scenes. He keeps it direct and real. And capitalises on the immediacy of the story. Of all Shakespeare's stories this is the most immediate - it's not about kings or politics, it's about the jealousy that can be born out of love, or in Iago's case, frustrated ambition."

Not, presumably, an emotion of which Branagh has first-hand experience. "I've seen it. In the acting profession you meet disappointed people, you see the kind of madness it can lead to. I've often seen that in theatrical companies - the mischief people can get up to.

"I've played mainly decent, rather solid types, so that's good for Iago - 40 times he's described as 'honest Iago'. Some people wouldn't expect me to be anything other than a rather bland Englishman. English- Irishman."

I ask him how he feels now about Frankenstein.

"I absolutely made the film that I wanted to make, and it - critically, it got a pretty good going-over. But around the world it did pretty well. For what it's worth, it did $106m theatrically."

Did it break even? "Oh, sure, with video and that, they'll see a profit. And I've had worse reviews. You take the old rough with the doodah and on you go."

Next the Sala dei Cesari is an anteroom, cluttered with equipment and director's chairs, which are used by everybody except the director. On one of them is a copy of yesterday's Daily Mail. "One of the drivers goes into Rome every morning to get the English papers," says a member of the crew. "Bit sad, isn't it?"

On another chair is a copy of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. Possibly a joke.

Out in the courtyard, a couple of male extras are having a cigarette, in doublets, hose and sunglasses. The courtyard is an elegant triangle, with cloisters to give shade and opportunity for plotting. It looks just like a stage set.

A familiar figure comes into view - a waif-like beauty, floating along in a floral sundress: Helena Bonham Carter. It takes a moment to register that she is not actually in the cast. I've heard the rumours linking her and Branagh, but then there are a lot of rumours in this business.

Branagh was cheerful, polite, instantly likeable. Fishburne is harder to get through to; the Moor is less merry.

"Good dancer!" says one of my Spanish colleagues, to break the ice.

"Thank you," says Fishburne.

"Like flamenco!" she adds.

"Thank you," says Fishburne.

Spain's other representative begins by asking when the star was born. "Sixty-one. July 30th. Augusta, Georgia. James Brown's hometown. Which means I'm very funky and I have got soul." He laughs. His body language is commanding - sprawled in a director's chair, head back, legs apart; but his laugh is loud and nervous.

"What made you take this part?"

"It was an offer I couldn't refuse." He pauses. "They made me an offer I could not refuse." The second reading of the line is slower. I can' t tell whether he's underlining it or adding irony.

"Do you have anything in common with Othello?"

"Do I have anything in common with Othello? When I think of Othello I think of a poet-warrior. Let me say that again - a romantic warrior. And I think I have those qualities in common with him. Don't everybody answer at once!" He laughs his big laugh again.

"What about his jealousy?" I ask. "How do you see that?"

"His jealousy? I think people mistake this thing. I don't think Othello is a jealous man - he is a man who has been deceived by another person, just as everybody in the play is deceived by that person ... The playwright uses the word jealousy over Andover and over again but I don't think it has anything to do with being jealous."

"Are you using a different accent?"

"Accent? Well -"

The publicist leaps into the pause and tells the star that none of us has heard any dialogue.

"Can you give us a taste of it?"

"No, that's not fair," says the publicist. Fishburne laughs, more warmly. "That's not fair," he says. "All I will say is that my voice is not my own, it is Othello's voice."

I ask him about Olivier and Welles's portrayals. Which does he prefer?

"Of those two? Olivier. Why? Vocally his performance is staggering. And physically his performance is pretty dead-on. It's a wonderful transformation, an inspiring performance."

Did it bother him to watch white men playing the part?

"No ... This was what, '52, '65? I can't be angry about the way shit was."

"How does it feel to be the first African-American to play Othello?"

"To be the first person of colour to play this role in a major motion picture is a great blessing and a great responsibility ... I'm just trying to do something that is true to the character and to the playwright' s story." Again, he refrains from saying Shakespeare's name.

He confirms that this is his first classical role. "But it's comfortable." He prepared for it by talking to James Earl Jones, who had played the role on stage; and by going to the gym. "I thought I wanted to get bigger for this part. And I lost weight -I got smaller. Obviously what happened is the character said, 'You want to get bigger - I don' t.' "

The publicist releases the star from his ordeal. It's nearly the end of the day. Of the eight scenes, only one has been shot; and we still haven't heard a word of Shakespeare.

NEXT DAY, Saturday, is a half-day. The principals are rehearsing up in the bedchamber, visitors not welcome. A line of Shakespeare finally seeps through a shuttered window. Not perhaps his best, but definitely his: "Murder! Murder!"

Over lunch in the moat, Oliver Parker finally sits down. He is 34, a year older than his brother Nathaniel, who plays Cassio, the soldier whose promotion so incenses Iago. They both have the prominent cheekbones of their father, Sir Peter, former chairman of British Rail. Oliver' s directorial experience amounts to three shorts. Inspired to try to film Othello after playing Iago in rep in Wales, he spent three years writing the script. "Sort of transforming it from a massive psychological drama to a twisting, turning thriller. The twists and turns are in the play, but here they're closer together." Things then fell into place in a matter of weeks once Branagh was on board. Five weeks into the shoot, Parker still has the air of someone who can't believe his luck.

For a stage actor, he is strikingly anxious to pull the story away from the theatrical tradition. "I wanted to make it as cinematic as I could." He presents Fishburne's lack of classical experience as an asset. "He's got superb filmic experience. I was more interested in bringing the film towards him than in making him more theatrical."

Didn't the whole thing, someone asks, scare the shit out of you? " There's still quite a lot of shit to be scared out of me," Parker replies cheerily. "Having been an actor is an advantage - you're not treating them as I have occasionally been treated -like a lump of meat, just hitting your mark and the lights."

Has he had the OJ case in mind at all? "Everyone's got it in mind, impossible not to. There are uncanny parallels in the events, but here we know Othello did it."

He goes bounding off to look at yesterday's rushes, and is replaced by Irene Jacob. No sooner has the tape started rolling than a producer arrives with flowers and a cake: it's her birthday. In a sleeveless black linen dress which makes her look like Princess Caroline, Jacob blows out the 29 candles, cuts the cake and smilingly distributes it. This operation achieves what her charm might well have done anyway: it turns her interviewers to sponge.

We learn a handful of things about her that we couldn't have guessed. She speaks English well enough to be interviewed in it. She thinks films are becoming more international: "It's very rare to find a ' French' French film today." She sees Desdemona as a strong woman. " It's true that she is often played naive, but she is written strong. She leaves her father, she marries a warrior, she goes with her destiny."

She speaks warmly of her co-stars, emphasizing Branagh's generosity and Fishburne's "strong emotion". Does she find Fishburne sexy, someone asks. "Ooh yuh." She speaks even more warmly of the director. "Ollee is a very good storyteller, he has a strong vision of the play and he's very moved by it. We did this scene this morning and -" she giggles - "he cried. I thought, this man really loves the play."

As she talks, Fishburne comes up and murmurs in her ear. "Enjoy yourself, enjoy your day, enjoy your parents [who are taking her out for dinner]. Your gift is in your trailer." He kisses her on the cheek and lopes away. Jacob says: "This tape is going to be very funny!"

London, December 1995

ADS FOR the film begin to appear in American magazines. It is rated R - "Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian." This means that the censors bought the idea that the film is an erotic thriller. It also means that a 15-year-old studying the play in high school (if such a person exists) cannot see the film with a classmate.

The ads carry a block of credits. There's only one for writing: ADAPTED FOR THE SCREEN BY OLIVER PARKER.

The film is reviewed in the New Yorker, a paper that does much to form opinion in Britain. The review, by Terrence Rafferty, is not a stinker; it's worse than that. He praises Branagh, saying that he steals the show, but "who steals this picture steals trash". The fact that this is a paraphrase of Iago does not soften the blow. Of all the films in all the world - Showgirls, The Scarlet Letter, vehicles for Sylvester Stallone or Cindy Crawford - the one the New Yorker describes as trash is Othello.

Others are kinder: "passionate and moving" (Los Angeles Times); "erotically charged" (New York Post). But the US reviews must be mainly poor, because the ad in the New York Times relies on quotes from KMPC-AM radio in LA and WMAQ-TV, Chicago.

London, January 1996

THE Daily Mail runs a lengthy account of the Branagh-Thompson separation. "Take your partners for the bizarre break-up of Britain's best-known celebrity couple," it says. (What, better known than the Prince and Princess of Wales?) There's a blurred picture of Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter going for a walk on Esher Common, "arm in arm" according to the caption, "hand in hand," says the reporter.

"Rumours that something serious was developing" between them "were reinforced when Miss Bonham Carter made ... an unscheduled trip to see Branagh in Tuscany while he was filming Othello. She said, unconvincingly, that she wanted to have her hair attended to by a particular hairdresser." This would itself be more convincing if it had got the location right.

A week later Othello is screened for the media in a Soho preview theatre. Of what I saw on location, which wasn't much, even less survives. Desdemona's dance is there, occupying at least seven seconds of screen time. Othello's is on the cutting-room floor. And the Brazilian extra might as well have stayed in Brazil. Of what I was told, however, there is every sign. Oliver Parker has made the film he wanted to make - cinematic, rapid, passionate. There is no heat of the literal kind, but plenty of the metaphorical. Terrence Rafferty is right about Branagh, who is chillingly genial and scintillatingly lucid - when he's not talking, the words are suddenly harder to follow.

Fishburne's accent turns out to be English, with the emphasis on the -ish. His voice is deep, rounded, a bit stilted - and therefore convincing: he achieves the quality not unknown in assimilated people, of sounding more native than the natives. He's a sort of 16th-century Trevor Macdonald. And physically, as promised, he is electric.

Among the credits: special thanks to Helena Bonham Carter.

"VISIT the Othello web site," say the posters for the film: "http://othello. guide.com." With the help of the Independent's Network editor, David Bowen, I take up the invitation.

"Hell of a lot of information on here," Bowen says, as the counter in the corner flips past 300K. The home page explains why: it promises "extensive background on Shakespeare's play, the author himself, a history of Elizabethan England, an annotated text of the play, and a continuing series of commentaries, curriculum materials, interviews and chat sessions with historians, film- makers and actors". For those who are still not satisfied, "a CD-rom will be available in the summer" .

After five minutes, we finally get past the first page. Skipping the history, I click on LOCATION. Plenty of interesting background scrolls up, but it has a familiar ring. It's the Production Notes, as handed out to reporters at screenings, with a few still photographs thrown in - which explain the sluggishness. I click on PRODUCTION. A box pops up to announce that the server is busy, and please try later. The web site has brilliantly re-created the experience of being on location: a lot of hanging around, for little immediate reward.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium