Mokhallad Rasem transforms Othello into modern fable


Toneelhuis' new production of Othello production focuses on a theme with particular resonance in Middle Eastern culture

A certain ideal

Iraqi-born theatre director Mokhallad Rasem has made a name for himself with unusual readings of Shakespeare, bringing a Middle Eastern perspective to the love story in Romeo and Juliet and the father-son relationship in Hamlet. Now he turns his attention to Othello, Shakespeare’s tale of a Moorish general driven to suspect his white wife of infidelity through insinuations made by his jealous deputy, Iago.

Rather than focus on race, which usually looms large in productions of Othello, Rasem has picked out a theme with particular resonance in Middle Eastern culture. “Virginity is still an important issue in the Arab world,” he explains. “A woman must be a virgin when she marries. This principle is based on a certain ideal of female beauty and purity. And of course it has to do with the man’s possessiveness, his desire for exclusivity: The woman is mine alone, nobody else will touch her. That is a very traditional way of thinking, and it still has a huge impact.”

In Rasem’s version of the play, a production by Antwerp’s Toneelhuis, this concern dominates the triangular relationship between Othello, Desdemona and Iago. The two men see different things when they look at Desdemona's body – images that have more to do with their own obsessions than with her personally. What, then, do we see of her? And what about her voice and her story?

As with his previous productions for Toneelhuis, Rasem uses a montage of texts, images and music to create a contemporary fable, in which the physical presence of the performers becomes more important than the story. Creative and challenging, this is no place for a Shakespeare purist.

Until 11 April across Flanders
Photo by Kurt Van der Elst