Shakespeare's green-eyed monster, jealousy, appears in living color in a new TV adaptation that reinvents the famed Moor as a rising black police officer in London, in Andrew Davies' "Othello," airing Jan. 28 on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."
Screenwriter Davies ("Wives and Daughters," "Bridget Jones' Diary," "Pride and Prejudice") takes inspiration from the Shakespeare tragedy to serve up (as the Bard did) "sex, corruption and betrayal" but "translated to a completely convincing modern setting — New Scotland Yard in the era of race riots, neo-Nazis, and political spin," according to PBS.
It airs 9 PM (ET) Jan. 28 on PBS, but check local listing for time in your area.
This "Othello" also takes cues from a notorious real-life controversy dramatized on "The Murder of Stephen Lawrence" (seen Jan. 21 on "Masterpiece Theatre"), which covers the 1993 killing of a black teenager in London and the ensuing botched police investigation that led to charges of institutional racism.
"Othello" stars Eamon Walker ("Oz") as John Othello, an up and-coming black official with the London Metropolitan Police. Keeley Hawes ("Wives and Daughters,"Our Mutual Friend") is Dessie (as in Desdemona), the love of his life. Christopher Eccleston ("Elizabeth") plays the duplicitous Ben Jago (read: Iago), "who seems destined for the top job at the Met, but loses it to Othello after he dramatically quells a race riot sparked by the death of a black man in police custody."
Davies transforms Cassio into Michael Cass (Richard Coyle); Emilia into Lulu (Rachael Stirling); Brabantio into Jimmy Brabant (Joss Ackland); and Roderigo into Alan Roderick (Del Synott).
Davies substitutes a beautiful golden robe for the famous handkerchief of the play, an accessory whose placement suggest to Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful. "As befits a contemporary crime story, he has the crisis turn on DNA analysis of the garment for sexual secretions," according to production notes.
"A lot of people have noticed that Iago is under-motivated in pursuing his vendetta against Othello," Davies said in notes. "He almost gives too many reasons for what he does, and none of them are wholly convincing. I thought it would be interesting if Iago — Jago as I call him — was somebody who at the beginning was in a superior position to Othello and that Othello gets promoted over his head. When this happens Jago discovers feelings about Othello that he never knew he had: latent racism, fierce envy, and jealousy."
According to production information, Jago secretly undermines Othello's signature case as commissioner: the police's high-profile investigation into the murder of the black man. He also instigates a white supremacist attack on Dessie, assigns Cass to protect her, and slyly concocts a case that the two are having an affair.
"We’ve all come pretty close to Othello's paranoid jealousy — that 'who can I trust?' feeling," Davies said. "Othello is the most domestic of Shakespeare's tragedies and the one that's likely to strike a personal note with a lot of people watching it. The other great tragedies, like Hamlet and Macbeth, are about kings and murder in a dynastic sense. This one is about jealousy, and I would guess that most people have experienced really powerful sexual jealousy sometime in their lives."
"Othello" is a London Weekend Television/WGBH Boston co production, in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The producers are Anne Pivcevic and Julie Gardner. Geoffrey Saxe directs.
For more information on "Othello" and "Masterpiece Theatre" visit pbs.org/masterpiece.
— By Kenneth Jones