LONDON — When Clint Dyer was an aspiring actor in the mid-1980s, he made his first visit to the National Theater, the revered London playhouse whose productions are a showcase for the great and good of British drama. “I’d never seen a stage that size,” Dyer recalled recently. “I’d never seen actors of that level. What a thing! How inspiring!”
But when Dyer walked out of the auditorium after the show, he saw something that changed his mood instantly, he said: On a wall was a large photograph from a 1960s production of “Othello,” with the actor Laurence Olivier in the title role — in blackface. The sight “broke my heart,” Dyer said.
Dyer, who is Black, said he grabbed a pen and wrote the words “Shame on you” in the whites of Olivier’s eyes.
Almost four decades later, Britain’s theatrical landscape has changed radically. Last year, Dyer, 54, was named as the National Theater’s deputy artistic director — a position that makes him arguably the most high-profile person of color in British theater. On Wednesday, he premieres his own production of “Othello” at the playhouse.
“It’s such a strange feeling that I’m in this building, directing the play that broke my heart,” Dyer said in an interview. “The beauty of that circle is almost overwhelming.”
As the deputy artistic director of the National Theater, Dyer is arguably the most high-profile person of color in British theater.Credit…Adama Jalloh for The New York Times
The National Theater rarely stages the lengthy “Othello,” but previous productions have been landmark events. Those include John Dexter’s 1964 production with Laurence Olivier (so revered that photographs from the show were still on display two decades later), Sam Mendes’s 1997 staging featuring David Harewood in the lead and Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed 2013 production starring Adrian Lester as Shakespeare’s tragic hero, a Moor who murders his wife Desdemona after he is tricked into believing that she is having an affair.
Dyer’s “Othello” — which sets the play in an arena populated by black-shirted thugs who seethe whenever Othello (Giles Terera) goes near his white wife (Rosy McEwen) — is highly anticipated, especially given that Dyer is the first Black director to tackle the play at the theater.
During a recent rehearsal break, the director said he was hoping to do something new in this show. “As a Black man, I’ve always found productions problematic,” he said, adding that most directors play down the issue of race and focus on male jealousy, even when a Black actor takes the lead role. “The irony is,” Dyer said, “the way we’ve been performing ‘Othello’ has in some ways highlighted our racism more than the actual play.”
To some theatergoers, Dyer’s rise to the heart of Britain’s theatrical establishment may appear swift. He was little known here until a play he directed and co-wrote, “Death of England,” opened in February 2020, just a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered London’s playhouses. The play, about a working-class man coping with his conflicting feelings for his deceased father, was a critical hit for the National Theater.
Yet for almost two decades, Dyer had been toiling away in London’s theater land. Born in 1968, he was brought up in Upton Park, a poor district of East London. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked at a Ford car factory. He wanted to be a soccer player, he said, but after acting in a school play, older schoolmates encouraged him to attend Saturday morning workshops at the Theater Royal Stratford East. Soon, he was acting in a play directed by Mike Leigh, and theater administrators pushed him to try his hand at writing and directing, too.
In 2004, Philip Hedley, the theater’s artistic director at the time, asked Dyer to direct his first production, “The Big Life,” about four immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean who take a vow to avoid women and wine, but swiftly break it. Based on Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the musical transferred to the West End, though Dyer struggled to get directing work afterward.
Hedley said that race was “the only reason” Dyer’s career didn’t take off at the time. If he had been white, “he’d have been the hot property,” Hedley said. Dyer said he restarted his career by taking acting gigs, and writing and directing plays on the side. It was 15 years before he directed in the West End again, with “Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical.” He is now developing a Muhammad Ali musical for Broadway.
There is curiosity in Britain’s theater world not just about Dyer’s “Othello,” but also about his plans as the National Theater’s deputy director. Dominic Cooke, a former artistic director of the Royal Court who is one of the National’s associate artists, said Dyer was chosen for the role partly because of his “really strong take on the politics of race.”
The theater has long set targets to increase diversity on its stages, including one for 25 percent of performers to be people of color. (Last season it surpassed most of its objectives, with nonwhite artists making up 36 percent of its performers.) Dyer said “targets are valuable,” but it shouldn’t just fall to casting directors to increase diversity onstage. “We should really be going to writers,” Dyer said, adding that he wanted to ask playwrights to consider the diversity of their characters from the moment they began working on a play.
Writers “should be doing the work to actually go out and learn about different cultures, different people and find the vernaculars that they speak in,” Dyer said.
For all that focus on race, Dyer said his main responsibility as the National Theater’s deputy director was nothing to do with diversity, but simply “to sell tickets” — and that started with his “Othello.” For an artist of his generation, it felt like “a big deal” that a Black director was staging the play there, he said, but younger people might not see it as significant.
That didn’t bother him, he said. “I’m glad they don’t think this is a big deal, as I do,” Dyer added. “Because they shouldn’t. It should be bloody normal.”