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Picture of the Month - October 2012

In 1959, Paul Robeson returned to the English stage after 23 years’ absence to play Othello in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s 100th Season.

Helen Hargest
Robeson Othello 1959
Robeson looking down on the stage from the circle of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

October is Black History month. It is also the month chosen for the inaugural Shakespeare Film Festival. Hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Stratford Picturehouse over a two week period during October 2012, the festival celebrated Shakespeare’s influence on the cinema with a programme of iconic films and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, including Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew and Laurence Olivier’s Othello. It is therefore an appropriate month to focus on an image from a Stratford production of Othello.

In 1959, Paul Robeson, the African American actor and singer, returned to the English stage after 23 years’ absence. The production Of Othello in which he starred was directed by Tony Richardson, and opened the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s 100th Season. He was not new to the role, for in 1930 he had played Othello at the Savoy Theatre in London, opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, and many theatre-goers relished the opportunity to see him perform again in England. Recovering from bronchitis and exhaustion, Robeson arrived late for rehearsals at Stratford and the production and his acting were censured by the critics. Nevertheless, the “Robeson charisma prevailed......almost all of the critics extolled Robeson” (Lindsey R. Swindell; The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello), calling his performance “The Othello of a Lifetime” (Birmingham Mail 9 April 1959). Michéal Mac Liamḿoir wrote in The Observer, “Paul Robeson has a majesty of voice and of presence that illumines everything he does with magical fires.” There were 15 curtain calls on the opening night!

Tom Holte took this shot of Robeson from his favourite spot, looking down on the stage from the circle of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and capturing Robeson’s commanding stage presence to perfection.