Both Abraham and Norah graduated from RADA in 2016. How does it feel to play such iconic Shakespearean roles in such a high-profile and acclaimed production so early in their careers and how familiar were they with the play beforehand?
A: I feel privileged, very privileged. I studied the play for my English Literature degree at University of Westminster and used one of Othello’s monologues as my audition piece for drama school. I was then lucky enough to play the role at RADA in an abridged version for secondary schools. Their responses were fascinating, especially an all-boys school where they were really hot, sweaty and bored; all they wanted was action but, during the quieter moments, they were riveted. It was amazing to see how we could grasp their attention, even though some were harder to win over than others. I do believe we were helping to open their eyes to something new.
N: I studied it in the sixth form and loved it. It seemed so different to any other Shakespeare I’d come across before because it’s so economical in terms of its exposition. The story unravels so quickly. We have a joke in the company that it could easily make a Netflix one-part drama! I would once have been scared by a part like this and hadn’t imagined myself, with my Manchester accent, playing Shakespeare. It’s easy to get caught up in what are often perceived as the dos and don’ts of Shakespearean acting. Desdemona has always been dusted over as this very naïve, wishy-washy sort of creature. Like many young actresses, I’m inclined to gravitate more towards women with substance, with meat on their bones, so I was actually more drawn to Emilia. When this audition came through, though, I really looked at the story from Desdemona’s perspective for the first time and realised that she’s a headstrong young woman with the balls to stand up for herself. The first thing we see her do is defy her father.
Norah and Abraham not only studied together at RADA, they are also friends off-stage. Has that made a difference to their experience of playing Othello and Desdemona?
N: We’re definitely comfortable with each other and, of course, our training together means we’d already broken down all the barriers of discomfort around things like love scenes. There have been plenty of laughs around our difference in height – I’m barely 5’ 6” and Abe’s 6’ 5”. If we need an intimate moment, he has to either pick me up or sit down! Although the physical difference perfectly reflects the changing relationship. In the beginning, he is this big, strapping, sexy man who literally sweeps me off my feet and carries me away. As events unfold, he becomes completely overpowering so that I can’t defend myself against him. Our physicality mirrors the opposition where everything turns from good to bad – the almost erotic heat of Cyprus becomes stifling and oppressive, Othello’s being a muslim lends him an exotic, attractive otherness at first, which then becomes terrifying as she realises “you’re a stranger, I don’t know anything about you”.
A: I think our friendship and prior knowledge of each other’s acting has definitely helped us to explore the characters further. It also means we’re there to support each other when the play weighs heavy. It’s almost inevitable for me that some residue of the character lingers in me during the run and there are aspects that I’ve been affected by. I may never have killed my wife or led an army but the paranoia Othello feels, fuelled by the racism he encounters every day, that’s something I have felt. It’s close to home in that sense. It’s double-edged – in some ways it's a strength, being able to use my own experience to play the character, but it’s difficult when it reflects negative experience in your life. Whenever I’ve been struggling with that, it’s been good to know I have a friend there who understands me.
Despite their previous knowledge of the play, there are elements of Director Richard Twyman’s production that are still fresh and unexpected.
N: It’s really exciting to be in a production that deals with the female voices. They are so often overlooked as Othello is presented very much as about a group of soldiers - a man’s play, set in a man’s world. Yet the three women’s voices are so distinct and have such purpose. The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona has been a revelation. I had always read (and been taught to read) them as dowdy, cynical Emilia and naïve, stupid Desdemona but that does no justice to the characters, and denies all the nuances in-between. Their relationship is particularly sad and illustrates another about-turn as Desdemona becomes increasingly trapped in her marriage and loses her grip on her own strength and the oppressed Emilia gains courage to make a stand. There’s a scene between the two, the only scene with only women present, where the great unspoken truth underlying their conversation is that Desdemona is being abused by her husband. It’s also a play about domestic abuse, which still goes on today; nothing much has changed.
Katy (who plays Emilia) and I often marvel at how Shakespeare could hear both Emilia’s and Iago’s opposing voices so clearly and take an almost feminist approach to the way men treat women. The incredible irony is that those women would have been played by men because women were not allowed to play themselves!
A: The women’s roles were a revelation for me too. It’s been illuminating to discover that this is not just a play about two alpha males. And that Othello can be - is – young. I always delivered my audition monologue as a man much older than myself because I’ve only ever seen the role portrayed by older actors. A director who saw that I’d played the role at RADA once made a point of telling me that I was far too young and shouldn’t think about it until I was 50! That thought was stuck in my head but Richard was keen to make it clear that he saw Othello as a young man. Also that he is a Muslim in hiding, he’s adopted Christianity in order to survive but his true faith is Islam. That and his youth mean he has no choice but to trust the older, more experienced Iago, who has been moving, manipulating and surviving in that society for longer than Othello has even been alive.
N: Yes, it’s so important that they are a young couple, deeply in love, and Iago’s jealousy is made even worse by being faced with this young man who has everything he wishes he had. Audience feedback from Bristol shows that we really have portrayed that.
A: It helps that, instead of just hearing other characters talk about the couple before we see them, we actually witness their wedding at the beginning. That’s a new addition for this production.
The cast are now gearing up to seven performances at Exeter Northcott Theatre before heading to Wilton’s. A prospect at which Norah, who has recently moved to London, and Abraham, who hails from Dalston, were particularly excited when they visited us recently.
A: I’m absolutely buzzing – I can’t wait for the whole cast to come in! And it’s so significant to be doing this play here in Tower Hamlets where there is such a large Muslim population. We overheard conversations in Bristol that suggested we had managed to communicate something to Muslim audiences that they had never seen before so it’s going to be fascinating to see what responses we get at Wilton’s.
N: Playing in the round here is going to be amazing. I can’t imagine it any other way now because it creates a stifling claustrophobia and you can feel the gender differences in the audience; you sense the male discomfort listening to speeches about the way men treat women and women are held spellbound with the recognition.
We couldn't resist throwing in these snippets of Othello trivia: The first play Abraham ever saw was Ibsen's Ghosts at the Arcola. Which just happened to be Norah's first major role after graduating, at Home Theatre in Manchester. They both have friends who were in the recent version of Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Abraham worked with Kurt Egyiawan, who played the eponymous lead in that production, in Three Migrants at the Royal Court, which was also directed by Richard Twyman.
runs 16 May to 3 June and you can buy tickets here
You can also read another very personal account from a member of the cast in this blog post
from Hayat Kamille, who plays Bianca.