In 2012, England’s BBC4 and America’s PBS, via member station WNET New York Public Media, joined together to bring forth SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, a series of documentaries about Shakespeare’s plays, which aired on PBS in 2013. Each segment, hosted by someone famed for their connection to the Bard’s work, was full of insights into the source and inspiration of the plays and interviews with actors, directors and other experts who had insights into the material.
This year, a second season of SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED is airing on PBS. The first two segments, with Hugh Bonneville on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and Christopher Plummer talking about KING LEAR, ran Friday, January 30. Kim Cattrall hosting ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and David Harewood on OTHELLO will be telecast Friday, February 6 and Morgan Freeman discussing THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and Joseph Fiennes on ROMEO AND JULIET will run Friday, February 13.
Harewood, who hails from Birmingham, England, has a stage career both in the U.K., where he played the title role in OTHELLO at the National Theatre, and in New York, where last year he played Oberon in director Julie Taymor’s off-Broadway production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which was filmed for theatrical showings later this year.
Harewood also works prolifically in film, with several due out later this year, and in television. He was recently a regular on SELFIE and spent the first two seasons of HOMELAND as David Estes, boss and former lover of Claire Danes’ Carrie, who died in the CIA headquarters explosion.
Harewood and his SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED director Nicola Stockley are in a small business meeting room at the Pasadena Langham Hotel, where they enthusiastically discuss their work on the documentary.
AX: How often have you played OTHELLO?
DAVID HAREWOOD: I’ve done two productions of OTHELLO. And the first one was out of town and terrible. Because I was just so conscious of the idea of Othello being duped that …
AX: You were second-guessing his gullibility?
HAREWOOD: Yes, exactly. I think it’s very important to have a really good pairing of Othello and Iago. If you can get that right, I think you’re halfway home. And the Iago I had was [bad]. I actually caught him mugging to the audience, laughing. And I just stopped and watched him while he made faces.
AX: Would you say it’s important to have a Desdemona who trusts you and whom you trust?
HAREWOOD: Absolutely. When I did it at the National, it really was a bit of a dream team. We had some fantastic actors – Claire Skinner as Desdemona and Maureen Beattie as Emilia. Everyone kind of brought their A game. It was a fantastically clear production. When I was in New York last year, performing A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, one of the actors’ girlfriend was in a production of OTHELLO. They had to sack the actor playing Othello, because he was unstable. And I can understand where that comes from, because he becomes isolated, because he gets so passionate and violent in the second half, there’s a fine line. You don’t want to be too threatening, and I think the kid maybe being a bit Method was [frightening] – the actress felt, “He’s got to put a pillow over my head every night.” If you lose that trust, it can be very dangerous.
AX: With SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, did you choose the people you were speaking with, or did the producers choose them for you?
HAREWOOD: I think mainly the producers, Nicky [Nicola Stockley] and Richard, obviously, put a fantastic group together. When I watched it, I was like, “Oh, my God. Ian McKellen. Germaine Greer.” All these wonderful scholars that were involved in it. And these interviews shone a light on the play and made me think of it in a different way to an extent that immediately made me want to play the part again.
AX: Can you cite anything specific that you want to apply to the next performance?
HAREWOOD: Just the kind of idea of who [Othello] is. You always go into plays and do your research even more, and you [think] you’ve solved the play with the way I’ve charted his whole life story. I imagined his life story, but as Germaine Greer says, no one’s got any idea of who this man really is. They said he’s a Muslim, now he’s a Christian. He’s obviously been a very effective and brutal warrior. But what’s his real history? No one’s got an idea of who he really is. If I was doing it again, I’d put something undisclosed – there would be a big question mark as to who the man really is, which would assist the descent into this anger and violence at the end, rather than just being emotionally wrought over her possible infidelity, there’s also this anger at his own past, his own history, there’s something that this betrayal has maybe sparked maybe a very painful memory.
AX: Do you think it would work if Iago and Othello were both from the same place?
HAREWOOD: I’ve always said that. I’ve always – there’s no right and wrong way of doing the play. [Othello] could be a woman. I’m all for cross-casting, switching genders, because I think it just shines a different light on the production and I wish it was done more, where creative casting was applied, because it could make for a more interesting [production]. Particularly if Iago’s black. I think that speaks to something – black on black crime, self-loathing – I think there could be some very interesting things.
I always wanted to play Iago. To get into drama school, I did. They said, “What’s your piece?” I said, “Iago.” They said, “You mean Othello.” I said, “No, no, Iago.” They couldn’t quite get their heads around it. But I’ve always been attracted to that character. I think there’s something very great there.
AX: As an actor, how do you approach your presentational and interviewing duties in SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED?
HAREWOOD: I have to say, I really enjoy it. You’re just telling stories, and if you’re telling a story as yourself, as opposed to with a character, I find it fascinating. I enjoy presenting. It’s a great way of telling stories. I feel very comfortable, which is unusual. Normally, I’m uncomfortable as David Harewood – I’m far more comfortable playing a character. But with something like SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, I did feel very relaxed. It can be very uncomfortable for some people to be themselves in front of the camera, but I didn’t really have a problem with it.
AX: Were there things that you said to the producers, “You know, I’d really like to emphasize this”?
HAREWOOD: I’d be given a list of specific things we wanted the contributors to talk about, but I found that I might just throw in something for myself on each of them. And often, those questions have stayed in and led us to talk about something else. I was very grateful to Nicky, because sometimes we’d walk into rooms and she’d say, “Don’t talk now, I want to get it all on camera.” She could see that I was genuinely interested in asking and talking to these people. It was a lot of fun. I was allowed a lot of freedom.
NICOLA STOCKLEY: I had a long conversation with [the producers and Harewood] to get a sense of the things that we didn’t need, questions we wouldn’t want, which helped me then to form what might make the best conversation when you met a historian or a psychologist, and then, what would happen is, the interview would be them listening to each other, but of course there was that moment of, “Don’t do it before the cameras roll!” Because if there’s genuine excitement from David, it will come from him hearing for the first time. I’m a great believer in letting things happen for the first time. So much of these films have to be, as it were, crafted beforehand. But where you can get a genuine moment [it’s important]. Very early on, David was completely comfortable and absolutely natural with these people.
AX: How do you feel about doing Shakespeare for film as opposed to stage? Or, for that matter, filming stage productions of Shakespeare?
HAREWOOD: I love that. I think it’s a very interesting area we’re getting into [with] filming live performances. It’s a fascinating growth area. We filmed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and it will be screened in theatres as well this year, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.
STOCKLEY: [When the phenomenon began], there was a concern that people would wait to play the show in a film, in a cinematic form, and theatre would fall away. And that hasn’t happened at all. The opposite has happened. Areas where they have housed those, the theatre audiences have actually increased.
AX: Because you get a sense of, “Oh, I want to be in the room with that while it’s happening.”
HAREWOOD: Exactly. And I think that’s what’s wonderful about theatre. That’s why we do it. We go and do a big movie and get paid lots of money, but then we go and do a play for nothing, just to experience that immediacy.
AX: To ask about one of your old gigs, you guest-starred in David Tennant’s last two regular episodes of DOCTOR WHO; you played a rich man assisting John Simms’ character, the Master. Was that role Shakespearean in any way? It almost seems like a Shakespearean character of somebody who’s backing the wrong royal.
HAREWOOD: Yeah. Well, again, there are so many of those, aren’t there? They’re archetypes. There can be roles that you come across that have that certain size or pathos. I think certainly with that also comes David’s last episodes as the Doctor, so there was a certain sense of, “This is big.” Because you knew that he’d been a very popular Doctor, his demise was quite emotional. People on set were tearing up. You could see the crew were like, “Wow, this is the last one.”
AX: To ask a HOMELAND question, how did you feel about your character’s demise on that series?
HAREWOOD: To be honest with you, I was a bit disappointed with the plot trajectory, and I thought the character was kind of left unexplored and that was a shame. I thought there was a lot that we could have got out of it, but it’s been fantastic for me as a springboard to my American career. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity to [work] with Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. It was fantastic.
AX: And are there any Shakespearean roles that you’d particularly like to tackle?
HAREWOOD: I’d love to play Macbeth. Last year, I played Oberon [in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM] in New York and that’s a play I’d known about but hadn’t read, and I so enjoyed it. I’m sure there are parts in other plays that you only experience when you get the role and start playing them and start exploring them and rehearsing them. I’m sure there are many roles in Shakespeare like that, that will only – it’s only through experience that you start to enjoy it. So whenever someone says, or my agent rings up with a Shakespeare play, I always think, “Hmm, I’ll go away and read that.” And I’ll get videos out and I’ll start looking online about it, because you can have such a wonderful journey on those plays. So I’m sure there are ones that I don’t even know about that would be fantastic to do.
AX: With Oberon, were you conscious in the performance of him as the fairy king not being human?
HAREWOOD: God, yes. Julie Taymor’s got such a great imagination, so physically, the way that you move and the costumes we had on and the makeup I had – I was completely jet black, with these gold wings on my chest. It looked extraordinary. Physically, you could take some liberties with how we moved. Myself and Kathryn Hunter, who played Puck, were very physical. I was always picking her up. It was a joy to work on.
AX: In the course of doing SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, was there an interview that influenced your perspective?
HAREWOOD: There were several. Certainly with [director of London’s National Theatre] Nick Hytner. I remember reading something that Adrian Lester said, that the play’s not necessarily about race, and thinking, “That’s rubbish” and almost taking issue at it. But when I did SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, we talked we talked to Nick Hytner about that, I suddenly realized, “That’s right. It’s not necessarily about our twentieth-century construct of, ‘Oh, I’m brown and there are white people around – I’m the only black person.’” I don’t think [Shakespeare] was even thinking about that; it’s probably one of the least things he’s thinking about. It’s the fact that [Othello is] just isolated. That certainly pricked my imagination and I thought, “That’s something to take into productions going forward.”
Also, we talked to a wonderful lady who’s an Islamic scholar, who presented this picture of the ambassador from Barbary. He just looked absolutely astonishing. He had this full retinue of staff, and you can only imagine what that must have looked like to an Elizabethan crowd, seeing this dark stranger who looked very proud and very exotic. I’m sure it must have been an unusual sight, also a fascinating sight. There is this certain amount of fascination with Othello. They need him. It’s like, “We need this guy, he’s the ultimate warrior, this is the guy who won, this is our man,” as it were.
I think [Shakespeare] basically wanted to make [Othello] different. He wanted to isolate him. He has no one to turn to. What better way to maximize that than by also making him a different color, making the only one he can turn to his best friend, and the one person obviously that he does talk to is the very person who’s corrupting him.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about? There’s SPOOKS: THE GREATER GOOD …
HAREWOOD: I have a very funny Sasha Baron Cohen movie coming out, GRIMSBY, coming out this summer. That’s a hilarious piece. The MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM will be coming out in cinemas, and also TULIP FEVER, which is a Hollywood movie, a Weinstein Company movie with Judi Dench. There’s a host of stars in that.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED?
HAREWOOD: What do I most want them to know? That it will probably shine new lights on stories that they think they already know very, very well. I would say that even to experienced actors. It’s a fascinating forensic examination of stories that we think we know, but that this show manages to illuminate in a fantastic way by talking to learned people from different fields – doctors, scholars, clinical psychologists. It really gives us a different look at motivations behind the characters’ actions.
STOCKLEY: If I can add one thing – through David [as the host], I think there’s tremendous emotional variety in the film. So I think it’s enjoyable. I think it’s, as you say, illuminating, but I think people will [also] have a laugh, which is not what you might expect with OTHELLO.
This interview was conducted during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Association press tour.
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Article: David Harewood on SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED – exclusive interview