LONDON — When Clint Dyer was an aspiring actor in the mid-1980s, he first visited the National Theatre, a revered London theater whose productions are a showcase for the great and good of British drama. “I’ve never seen a stage that size,” Dyer recalled recently. “I’ve never seen an actor of this caliber. What thing! How inspiring!”
But when Dyer walked out of the auditorium after the show, he saw something that instantly changed his mood, he said: On the wall was a large photograph from a 1960s production of “Othello” with actor Laurence Olivier in the title role — in Blackface. The sight “broke my heart,” Dyer said.
Dyer, who is Black, said he grabbed a pen and wrote the words “Shame on you” on the whites of Olivier’s eyes.
Almost four decades later, the British theater scene has changed radically. Last year Dyer, 54, was appointed deputy artistic director of the National Theater – a position that makes him arguably the most high-profile person of color in British theatre. On Wednesday, the theater’s own production of “Othello” premieres.
“It’s such a strange feeling to be in this building directing a play that broke my heart,” Dyer said in an interview. “The beauty of that circle is almost overwhelming.
The National Theater rarely presents a full-length “Othello,” but previous productions have been major events. These include John Dexter’s 1964 production with Laurence Olivier (so revered that photos from the show were still on display two decades later), Sam Mendes’ 1997 production starring David Harewood and Nicholas Hytner’s award-winning 2013 production starring Adrian Lester as Shakespeare’s tragic hero. , a Moor who murders his wife Desdemona after being tricked into believing she is having an affair.
Dyer’s “Othello” — which sets the play in an arena populated by black-shirted thugs who seethe whenever Othello (Giles Terera) approaches his white wife (Rosy McEwen) — is highly anticipated, especially since Dyer is the first black a director who tackles a play in the theater.
During a recent rehearsal break, the director said he was hoping to do something new with the show. “As a black man, I’ve always found the production problematic,” he said, adding that most directors downplay the issue of race and focus on male jealousy, even when a black actor takes the lead role. “The irony is,” Dyer said, “the way we play ‘Othello’ has in some ways highlighted our racism more than the actual play.”
To some viewers, Dyer’s rise to the heart of the British theater establishment may seem rapid. He was little known here until the play he directed and co-wrote, “Death of England,” opened in February 2020, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic closed London’s theaters. The play, about a working-class man coming to terms with his conflicted feelings for his late father, was a critical hit for the National Theatre.
Yet for almost two decades Dyer toiled in London’s theater country. He was born in 1968 and grew up in Upton Park, a poor neighborhood in East London. His mother was a nurse and his father worked at the Ford car factory. He wanted to be a footballer, he said, but after playing in a school play, older classmates encouraged him to attend Saturday morning workshops at the Theater Royal Stratford East. He was soon acting in a play directed by Mike Leigh, and theater administrators pushed him to try his hand at writing and directing as well.
In 2004, the theater’s then-artistic director Philip Hedley asked Dyer to direct his first production, The Big Life, about four immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean who vowed to shun women and wine, but quickly broke it. . A musical based on Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” transferred to the West End, although Dyer then struggled to get a direction.
Hedley said race was “the only reason” Dyer’s career didn’t take off at the time. If he were white, “he would be hot property,” Hedley said. Dyer said he rebooted his career by playing acting gigs and writing and directing plays. It was 15 years before he directed again in the West End with Get Up, Stand Up! Bob Marley’s Musical.” He is currently preparing the musical Muhammad Ali for Broadway.
The British theater world is curious not only about Dyer’s “Othello”, but also about his plans as deputy director of the National Theatre. Dominic Cooke, former artistic director of the Royal Court, who is one of the National’s associate artists, said Dyer was chosen for the role in part because of his “really strong approach to the politics of race”.
The theater has long established goals to increase diversity on its stages, including one to have 25% of the cast be people of color. (It surpassed most of its goals last season, with non-white performers making up 36% of its cast.) Dyer said “goals are valuable,” but it shouldn’t be up to casting directors alone to increase diversity on stage. “We really should go to the writers,” Dyer said, adding that he wanted to ask the playwrights to consider the diversity of their characters from the moment they started working on the play.
Writers “should do the work to really go out and learn about different cultures, different people, and find the vernaculars that they speak,” Dyer said.
For all the focus on race, Dyer said his main responsibility as deputy director of the National Theater has nothing to do with diversity, but simply to “sell tickets” — and that started with his “Othello.” For artists of his generation, it seemed like a “big deal” to have a black director stage a play there, he said, but younger people might not see it as significant.
That didn’t bother him, he said. “I’m glad they don’t think it’s a big deal like I do,” Dyer added. “Because they shouldn’t.” It should be damn normal.”