Othello is a difficult role for any actor to tackle; the performance requires depth, realism and a powerful stage presence to pull off.
For Patrice Naiambana taking the role of the eponymous moor in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays has been a test, but one he has enjoyed.
“It is going to be a real challenge I haven’t played a Shakespeare role with as much complexity. Just getting to grips with his personality and the technicalities as well as the fact he falls in love.”
Before taking on the role he was part of the ensemble for the RSC’s Histories cycle, which played both in Stratford – as part of the Complete Works Festival – and then at the Roundhouse in London and was, critics agreeed, one of the theatrical highlights of recent years.
Naiambana is glad to have avoided being typecast and to have avoided playing “a hoodie from Hackney.” His CV is pleasingly varided: “I have had a strong sense of what I am as an artist and I have created my own career.”
Though he now lives in Birmingham, Naiambana is originally from Sierra Leone, where he began his career as an apprentice with Gbakanda Tiata in 1984. He had no formal training but years of different roles and working under inspirational directors has moulded and improved his acting skils. “I could not afford to go to drama school and I was not eligible for a scholarship,” he explains. “I think training depends on the person and the circumstances. I had a lot of bad habits knocked out of me but I learnt on the job, I made my own syllabus.”
It is in his work for the RSC that he has really made his mark. The experience opened his eyes and he has become fascinated with performing Shakespeare and trying to make the plays accessible to a wider audience. “It was difficult spending two and a half years with one company in the Histories. Over the last four or five years I slowly realised when the opportunity came to do some Shakespeare I had to do it. It has taken a long time to get here and when I played Warwick in the Histories Cycle, it was an opportunity to learn and develop as an artist.”
Naiambana has written for the stage and in 1999 won an Edinburgh Fringe First Award for his play, The Man who Committed Thought, a one-man show about conflict in Sierra Leone. African storytelling has played a huge part in his career: he is the artistic director of Tribal Soul Theatre, which brings together like-minded artists to produce works with an African influence.
There have been several high profile stagings of Othello recently. Chiwetel Ejiofor wowed critics and audiences alike at the Donmar; his performance, for many, eclipsing that of his co-star Ewan McGregor. Last year Frantic Assembly staged a version that encorporated elements of phyiscal theatre and dance and Lenny Henry is soon to play the part. So how does Naiambana feel about playing the role? He was, he admits, initially nervous but has enjoyed the challenge. It helps that he’s working with a strong ensemble cast. ” I took this job on to see if I can do it. To come to the RSC and work on different programmes and a different variation of Othello feels great at this stage in my career.”
Hunter’s Othello has a 1950s setting complete with swing soundtrack. Naiambana is pleased with what he feels is an innovative staging. “It is a really cosmopolitan ensemble,” he explains, “with people from Austria, Sierra Leone and Kathryn Hunter, who is Greek. This adds to the creative ambiance and with all our responses, it is really something special.”
“The things that are concerning me are what makes somebody particularly vulnerable. He (Othello) goes on to do extreme things, but all of these lies have been happening to him – but appearing as truths to him. There is no concrete evidence that Desdemona is having an affair, but what is in his soul has prepared him to take that news in that particular way and drive him to those extremes.”
The tour kicked off at the Warwick Arts Centre in January. Its staging coincided with an exhibition to celebrate 50 years since American actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson appeared as Othello at the RSC. For Naiambana, being classed alongside such a celebrated actor is an honour. “They had all the names of the major Othellos from 2002 at the exhibition and to be put in the same category is a blessing.”