BBC Culture in Quarantine: Othello at the RSC online
The BBC has teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company to feature some of Shakespeare’s classic plays on iPlayer, allowing theatre lovers access whenever they please from the comfort of their home.
One notable performance featured is Iqbal Khan’s 2015 adaptation of Othello, which is a must-see. His gripping production brings a new stance to the well-known tale by being the first at Stratford to cast a black actor as Iago. This, in turn, has been the catalyst in creating a new level of nuance not seen before in past adaptations of the piece.
Hugh Quarshie plays a perfect Othello, successfully portraying his obsessive love for Desdemona as well as the madness caused by his deep insecurity. Lucian Msamati plays an energetic and suave Iago, utilising fun asides to the audience when he is alone, perhaps attempting to get them onside. The casting of actors of colour as both protagonist and antagonist makes the moments of connection all the more delightful, and the moments of deceit all the more cutting. Their shared race highlights the bond set out in Shakespeare’s play more prominently, but Khan still emphasises the racism festering beneath the surface. For example, during the Cypriot drinking scene, what starts as harmless celebratory drinking and beat-boxing turns into a competitive rap contest, with surprising prejudices called out in a prickly manner.
The set by Ciaran Bagnall is as diverse and fluid as the casting, allowing for this adaptation to progress quickly. The designer has created a central strip that adapts to each scene. Podiums rise on varying levels to create steps, or they deplete completely to reveal the crystal-clear Venetian waters below – not to mention acting as a plunge pool in Desdemona’s bedroom. Bagnall also creates the silhouette of a cathedral high up in the ceiling of the Stratford venue, where the bright, at times harsh lights fall upon the characters; the lighting state dims and shines when required to emphasise a character’s inner feelings or foreshadow a moment to come.
Joanna Vanderham is a striking Desdemona, playing the heroine with a strong sense of self and assurance. The relationship between Othello and Desdemona is captivating; their affection and loyalty are strongly portrayed on both parts. This makes for a more tragic second act when the Moor is tortured by his wife’s presumed infidelity.
Through the modern casting of Iago, Khan’s production allows us to pay more attention to the play’s synopsis rather than focusing on the racial dynamic between Othello and Iago, which would normally change our perception of the latter’s decisions, adding a layer of motive to his actions. By removing this element, the director allows Shakespeare’s classic play to speak for itself.