Othello (1963): Old Vic Theatre Company
PRINCIPAL CAST: Dilys Hamlett (Desdemona); Errol John (Othello); Catherine Lacey (Emilia); Leo McKern (Iago); Eric Thompson (Cassio).
The first performance of this production took place on 30 January 1963.
"There have had to be some cast changes in the new season at the Old Vic, following the tragic death from a heart attack last month of the Danish actor Mogens Wieth. The title role in Othello, which Mogens Wieth was to have played, will now be taken by Mr. Errol John, the West Indian actor who is best known in this country, apart from his work in films and television, as the author of the Observer prize-winning play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Othello is to go into the repertory on January 16. Mr. John, however, will join the company for the season, and will first be seen as Morocco in The Merchant of Venice." ~ "Cast changes at the Old Vic", The Times, 5 October 1962
"A good Iago, as any drama student knows, can always make mincemeat of an Othello on stage. And in this production [Leo] McKern has no difficulty at all stealing enough attention from Errol John's Othello to warrant a conviction for grand larceny. By saying this, I am not indicating any approval of McKern's interpretation....Most of the time he behaves like a callous bully-boy out for some healthy evil. Any laugh is welcome so that the total effect is to rob the play of its basic tragic element since one of the main protagonists is an unmotivated sharp-boy lout. If Errol John, as Othello, had either the physical or acting stature to stand up to this comic turn, the end product might not have seemed so unbalanced. But Mr. John has a good deal to learn before he can come close to the Othellos of actors like Frederick Valk, Richard Burton, Paul Robeson, Orson Welles or even John Gielgud. At no time did we feel that overpowering sense of monumental despair rolling over us. Mr. John's verse speaking is adequate in the quieter moments, but in his fits of rage all one caught was a combination of rough-throat raspings and explosive grunts. In stature, too, Mr. John looks more like a track runner than the overpowering Moorish general we have come to expect. Only in the final strangling of Desdemona did I get a tine echo of the tragedy. Casper Wrede's production, travelling at caterpillar pace, is full of meaningless pauses. There are some disastrous attempts at comic relief (musician falling on backside is a highlight) and the Richard Negri costumes include Venetian, Victorian, Ruritanian and Polynesian styles, amongst others." ~ Milton Shulman, "Othello defeated - by a too-comic Iago", Evening Standard, 31 January 1963
"Last night's Othello at the Old Vic is not destined, I fear, to add much to one's store of memories of this play. It was an undistinguished affair, sadly lacking in poetic feeling...the fine acting of Leo McKern as Iago throughout the play. He achieves a coarseness of manner which serves equally well to express the blackness of his real nature and the bluff heartiness which passes for honesty. He deserves a better Othello than he gets in the Negro actor Erroll [sic] John. Mr. John is, quite simply, miscast. He has certain natural assets for the part - a big frame, a dark skin, an attractive personality. But Othello's blood comes quickly to the boil, while Mr. John obviously doesn't. Also, he clearly lacks experience in verse-speaking: not once, in any of the great passages, did I feel the least stir of responsive emotion. He might have done better under another director. I don't know whether Mr. Wrede was deliberately encouraging his actors to speak in prose rhythms and make minor alterations to Shakespeare's text, or whether he just didn't notice they were doing it. Either way the effect was unimpressive." ~ W. A. Darlington, "This Othello lacks poetry: Negro actor is miscast", Daily Telegraph, 31 January 1963
"Yet this Othello is not altogether bad. Had it been called Iago it might in fact be considered to have merit. For Leo McKern's extrovert, jolly, and at times kindly and sympathetic Iago makes the play credible: a remarkable feat....Errol John's Othello is so small a performance that it is easy to overlook it. This is probably the best thing to do." ~ Harold Hobson, "Realms above reason", Sunday Times, 3 February 1963
"This disastrous production, by Mr. Caspar Wrede, puts the Old Vic at one bound back in the terrible slough from which it seemed, only a few months ago, to have finally and splendidly climbed. And it gives rise to the suspicion that they are determined, in the Waterloo-road, to get through all the major elementary theatrical fallacies in a single season....Now they have fallen into the even deeper error which holds that because Othello is a black man he ought to be played by one, and engaged the West Indian actor, Mr. Errol John, because he is the right colour. But so, I must point out, is an Englishman with burnt cork on or a very heavily sunburnt Chinaman or a Lithuanian Jew before an audience wearing dark glasses. Shakespeare's Othello was the idea of a negro conceived by a middle-class Warwickshire playwright in the 16th century and is no more like a real negro (in any case, he is a Moor) than, in A Winter's Tale, his Bohemians resembled John Huss. What counts in an Othello is not the colour of his skin but the quality of his acting and of his verse speaking. And on these counts, particularly the second, Mr. John does not even begin to be an adequate Othello. The dry, jerky delivery, shorn of conviction, poetry and in places even elementary sense ('I have a salt,' he said, adding as an afterthought, 'And sorry rheum offends me'), left a vacuum at the heart of the play that Mr. Wrede filled with some of the most idiotic 'business' even the Old Vic has ever seen: the one-man band he inserts at one point vies with the elaborate strip tease of Desdemona (Miss Adrienne Corri) for the offensive, irrelevence prize." ~ Bernard Levin, "Too many mistakes spoil Mr. Wrede's production", Daily Mail, 31 January 1963