RSC Othello production images 2015 - Photo by Keith Pattison © Hugh Quarshie (Othello) and Lucian Msamati (Iago)
Quarshie’s Othello requires a complete re-evaluation of the character. Played masterfully by the actor, the Moor is brought into an entirely new perspective.
Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and betrayal has been revolutionised in Iqbal Khan’s sensational new adaptation of Othello. Several creative choices give this production a modern stance, such as having a female Duke and the aggressive military backdrop. Most notable is the bold casting choice of Lucian Msamati as Iago. This challenges traditional interpretations of race fuelled vendettas, opening up the elemental condition of hatred. With Hugh Quarshie playing the eponymous Moor, conventional characterisations are abandoned as we watch one man’s gradual undoing. A remarkable cast bring the bard’s words to life as honest Iago weaves his net to enmesh them all.
In 400 years of Othello stagings, a black Iago is a theatre first. The villain’s own complexion is addressed in the opening scene when blundering Roderigo refers to Othello’s thick lips. Iago responds by comically waggling his own lips and blowing raspberries at his unwitting patron. With Msamati in the role, frequent allusions to the Moor’s base nature gain a new significance. It is open to interpretation whether this speaks of Iago’s own sense of ethnic inadequacy, or of a cultural animosity. As the Moor of Venice, Othello’s roots are firmly placed in Northern Africa, but Iago’s heritage remains ambiguous. A canny additional line, in which Othello informs Iago that Desdemona’s name is now “Black as thine own face.” could suggest Othello recognises Iago as a kinsman. Desdemona on the other hand has been cast in the traditional aspect; a blonde haired Venetian with a gentle countenance. Joanna Vanderham makes her RSC debut as the maligned heroine and the onstage chemistry with Quarshie is compelling. Her assurance and sanguine playfulness make her naivety all the more tragic.
RSC Othello production images 2015 - Photo by Keith Pattison © - [left] Hugh Quarshie (Othello) and Joanna Vanderham (Desdemona) [right] Hugh Quarshie (Othello) - standing - and Lucian Msamati (Iago)
The dynamic between Quarshie and Msamati works superbly and is supported by a first rate cast. In this provocative and gripping adaptation, Khan shows how Othello’s tale is not simply black and white, but technicolour.
Hugh Quarshie’s portrayal of Othello is cognizant and subtle. Rather than succumbing to the stereotype of the lascivious Moor, his murderous transformation is palpably phrenic. He retains a composure as befits a General, extracting information from Iago during a shocking torture scene. Quarshie’s Othello requires a complete re-evaluation of the character. Played masterfully by the actor, the Moor is brought into an entirely new perspective. It can be considered that Othello and Iago have traded temperaments in Khan’s production. Usual portrayals of Iago as the poised mastermind give way to Msamati’s agitated underdog character. This Iago is impulsive and opportunity seeking, with suggestions of an obsessive and unhinged personality. In a powerful scene where Iago delivers his soliloquy amidst the slow motion revelry, he looks every inch the maniacal puppet master.
The set designed by Ciaran Bagnall is a majestic netherspace. Vast crumbling arches give a post-apocalyptic grandeur without denoting any specific location. A concealed pool under the stage is used to spectacular effect, not least in the opening scene involving a gondola. The ethnically diverse cast, including an Asian Emilia reinforces the modern social setting and again challenges the accustomed view of Othello as ‘other.’ Also the inclusion of stirring African drumming emphasises the multicultural landscape, whilst hinting at both Othello and Iago’s ancestry. A particularly ingenuitive scene occurs during the Venetian victory party. Cassio, plied with drink by Iago is drawn into a rap battle with fellow soldiers. The racial imagery of pop culture, referencing chocolate and vanilla is belted out in playful one-upmanship. When compared to the Elizabethan motifs of angels and demons the identification of race has clearly shifted, but remains ubiquitous. With smatterings of rhyme and lyricism no doubt William wouoo[
RSC Othello production images 2015 - Photo by Keith Pattison © L-R - Hugh Quarshie (Othello) and Lucian Msamati (Iago)
It is a testament to Shakespeare’s astute portrayal of the human condition that his plays still engross and resonate four centuries on. It is also a prodigious achievement to create something fresh out of a canonical script. Iqbal Khan’s adaptation flies in the face of racial stereotypes, commonly held in Shakespeare’s day but too simplistic for a modern audience. The nature of envy, of injured pride, ambition and of course love are explored as universal subjects in this neoteric production. The dynamic between Quarshie and Msamati works superbly and is supported by a first rate cast. In this provocative and gripping adaptation, Khan shows how Othello’s tale is not simply black and white, but technicolour.
Hugh Quarshie – RSC Othello, interview