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Shakespeare Lives celebrates Black History Month

MODERN TAKE: Dear Mister Shakespeare was commissioned by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign

THIS MONTH, Dear Mister Shakespeare, a short film commissioned by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign launches in celebration of Black History Month.

As the UK’s principal cultural relations organisation, the British Council operates across more than 100 countries and territories worldwide, connecting millions of people with the UK through programmes and services in the arts, English language and education.

This is part of a collection commissioned for Shakespeare Lives, a global programme celebrating William Shakespeare’s legacy on the 400th anniversary of his death.

Inspired by the English writer’s tragic play, Othello, Dear Mister Shakespeare takes the form of a rhetorical letter to Shakespeare. The film is written and performed by Kenyan-born, London-based filmmaker and visual artist, Phoebe Boswell and directed by Shola Amoo, a graduate of the National Film and Television School.


VISIONARY: Shola Amoo

Together, they challenged and engaged with Shakespeare’s famous Moor – who is often portrayed as a black character – bringing to the fore Shakespeare’s ability to both stereotype and subvert audience expectations.

Here, Phoebe and Shola tell us more about the project.

What drew you to examine Othello for your short film, Dear Mister Shakespeare?
Phoebe: Shakespeare really examined the inherent nature of people - our weaknesses, strengths, prejudices, glories - which is why his work is timeless, and has consistently been revisited, reworked, and renewed. I think it is always useful to look to history to understand how to progress.
What was fascinating, alarming, disappointing, and deeply important to me when exploring how Shakespeare wrote Othello in the 1600s, was that even though the historic atrocities that constructed these racial power imbalances that still haunt and govern us today hadn’t yet occurred, the fear of the ‘dark other’ was still present. That’s a lot to think about, when contemplating what progress and a redressing of racial power imbalance might look like in the future.

How did you address the race issues inherent in Othello in your film?
Shola: I saw the play as an ongoing conversation; the racial themes in Othello resonate strongly within our society today. A key importance of Shakespeare’s writing is the ability for different generations and cultures to reinterpret his work.
The play’s contemporary relevance was clear to me in an age of rising racial inequality and rising black consciousness, represented by Black Lives Matter and other equal rights groups. The concept of the fear of the “other” is also visible in the UK today in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigration rhetoric within the far right and unfortunately much of our mainstream media.
My aim with the film was to play with the contemporary perception of the “other”, our fears our misconceptions, framed by the play’s historical context. I wanted to create a visual exploration of the unique nature of blackness in the UK inspired by similar thematic work made in the USA.


IDEAS: (Phoebe Boswell

Do you think Othello is an important role for black actors to play?
Phoebe: Ira Aldridge was one of the first black actors to play Othello and that was met with outrage by many. Paul Robeson spoke passionately about how important a role Othello is for the black actor. It remains perhaps the most important role. This of course then brings up the lack of central roles for black actors and how #oscarssowhite and the lack of visibility for black actors still permeates so heavily.
We are still lumbered with the issues surrounding blackness in white spaces, and the pressures of black masculinity, which are so inherent in Othello. I just wanted to question and draw parallels to all these things in our contemporary time. And so I wrote this rhetorical letter to Shakespeare, asking him about his process of construction in the ‘drawing’ of the character.

Does your identity affect your practice?
Shola: Yes, it’s an integral part of my practice. My identity shifts and morphs on a daily basis and requires constant questioning and critique, which I explore through my work. I’m interested in how individuals manage the relationship between their identities and the societal meta-narrative, which governs how we are all perceived.
Phoebe: My identity affects my practice, in a sense that it informs it. Navigating the complexity and nuance of ‘identity’ is central to my work; with a personal history defined by transient middle points and patterns of migration. My work is anchored in an exploration of the notion of ‘home’, what it means to belong or not to belong, and in the fluid state of diasporic consciousness.

For more information, visit www.shakespearelives.org

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