Review: Royal Shakespeare Company: Othello

Iqbal Khan’s Othello is a haunting rendition of psychological unravelling. With a stage bathed in blue light, a set reminiscent of a gothic church, and songs performed like elegies, Shakespeare’s controversial tragedy undergoes a thematic dismantling. Khan’s Othello recontextualises the play’s depictions of brutality and injustice. Costumes wander in a realm between modern and timeless, and additional dialogue involves the multi-racial community exchanging racist insults using current language. Most notably, the dynamic between Othello and the manipulative Iago shifts, with the compelling casting choice of a black actor as Iago.

This production, made available by the RSC via BBC iPlayer, brings hard-hitting performances into our homes during lockdown. Hugh Quarshie is instantly believable as Othello, expressing the character’s internal conflict between devotion for Desdemona and his growing paranoia. In stark contrast with the play’s offensive history of white actors portraying Othello in blackface, Quarshie’s performance deconstructs the racist stereotypes associated with the role and evokes a complex tragic hero in the same vein as Hamlet or Macbeth. When discussing the role, Quarshie said, “the more successful you are in depicting the first Othello, this man who is wise, astute, mature, magnanimous, the harder it is to show a man who is persuaded that his wife has committed adultery, and who turns into an obsessive, compulsive, murderous maniac.” On stage, Quarshie balances these halves of Othello excellently. His Othello is not a one-dimensional murderer, but a vulnerable, gaslighted individual.

Photo Credit: Keith Pattison

From the first moment we see Iago on stage, it’s clear that this is Lucian Msamati’s show just as much as it is Quarshie’s. Corrupt, insecure, yet often comical, Msamati’s Iago never fails to hold the audience’s attention. Msamati’s performance also marks the first RSC production to cast a black actor as Iago, casting new light on Iago’s motivations. Typically depicted as a white man driven by racist motives, Iago now appears driven by insecurity and competitiveness centred around a black man more powerful than himself. He takes no offence when Roderigo insultingly calls Othello “the thick-lips”, instead laughing with him. When reinterpreted as internalised prejudice, Iago’s hatred for Othello spins a cautionary tale on individuals refusing to stand in solidarity against oppressive systems.

Going against the idealised, submissive wife archetype, Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona demonstrates captivating outspokenness, while maintaining the character’s moral clarity. One of my favourite scenes is Desdemona and Emilia’s conversation before Desdemona’s murder. The closest Othello comes to passing the Bechdel test, this moment provides Desdemona with much-needed female companionship in a male-dominated social structure. They sing and joke together, yet both characters bear the unspoken truth that something isn’t right. This emotional fragility makes Desdemona’s strength before dying even more powerful. When she responds to Othello’s accusations with “then heaven have mercy on me,” her tone doesn’t turn into helpless pleading; even in fear, she stands for the truth.

Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona. Photo Credit: Keith Pattison

The added element of torture sparked discussion among viewers, some deeming it unnecessary, some calling it ground-breaking. While these scenes certainly took me by surprise, I think Khan’s choice suits this adaptation’s overarching logic. Driven by the “green-eyed monster”, Othello resorts to violence to draw information from Iago, giving Iago another reason to continue lying, for fear of his life. Not only does this further explain Iago’s actions, it lets both actors express raw, intense feeling. The instability and desperation of both characters surface. While they frequently interchange roles in terms of power, their mental states appear remarkably similar.

The final scene is one of emotional ruin and revelations that arrive all too late. Desdemona lies murdered in her bed, dressed in bridal white, as the one clear symbol of innocence. The characters surrounding her form an array of moral complication​— of the deceitful and deceived — those who collectively misled Othello and killed Desdemona, and those who assisted unintentionally. When Othello dies by his wife’s side, proclaiming that he “loved not wisely, but too well,” we’re encouraged to believe him, and mourn the couple whose miscommunication proved fatal.

Photo Credit: Keith Pattison

Once the cast go silent and the lights focus on Iago, he ends the play by laughing to himself at the tragedy he has caused. But the laughter that fills the stage is not the laughter of a villain — at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, as Msamati’s expression turns unhinged and joyless, it becomes apparent that Iago’s contentment with himself is entirely fabricated and unstable. If jealousy kills Desdemona, and betrayal kills Othello, it is morbid insecurity that threatens Iago’s life. Iago is the last point of this triangle, standing does not make him the victor. In this narrative, there are no winners.

Writing of the importance of solidarity in black communities in her essay “Learning from the 1960s”, Audre Lorde said, “it means knowing that coalition, like unity, means the coming together of whole, self-actualized human beings, focused and believing, not fragmented automatons marching to a prescribed step. It means fighting despair.” The ending of Othello feels inevitable, as this social ‘unity’ was never a concern of Shakespeare’s original play. Hence, on the page, Othello is alone in both his internal and systemic struggles. However, interpretations such as Khan’s, whilst unable to present solidarity between oppressed individuals in a script that won’t allow such a thing, do acknowledge this “despair” that needs to be fought, with admirable nuance. Othello will likely always provide us with more questions than answers, but addressing and reinventing literary history, rather than ignoring it, will always be a step in the right direction.

Sylvie Lewis

The Royal Shakespeare’s 2015 production of Othello is available to watch via BBC iPlayer.

Featured Image Source: Keith Pattison // Royal Shakespeare Company

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