Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 18th June, 2015
Iqbal Khan’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy takes the unusual but not unprecedented step of casting a black actor in the role of Iago, thereby putting a different slant on proceedings from the get-go. What motivates this villain, if the racist card is denied him? Shakespeare gives us other possibilities: Iago suspects Othello has had his way with his wife, for example. Iqbal gives us another: Iago resents Othello for doing so well in a white man’s world, and so every time he refers to Othello as ‘the Moor’ it drips with a different flavour of loathing.
Lucian Msamati dominates as the ‘honest’ villain – and this is by no means a bad thing. His Iago is sarcastic, darkly funny and bitter. You can easily picture him as Richard III. Othello, by contrast, is statesmanlike and reserved – Hugh Quarshie hangs up his Holby City stethoscope to give a strong performance of a man coming apart, poisoned by jealousy.
It’s a modern-day setting, with traces of old Venice in Ciaran Bagnall’s beautiful set. Khan keeps the surprises coming. My heart sinks when the soldiers launch into a rap battle (!) but they pull it off, within the context of the action. Othello puts a plastic bag over Iago’s head – don’t worry, he also pulls it off.
There is a torture scene using all the mod cons available to the unscrupulous army of today – the accoutrements are then handy for Othello to use against his own man, in a shocking scene that reveals his violent streak. This adds tension to subsequent scenes with Desdemona; we have witnessed what he is capable of, and so his final, murderous act does not come out of nowhere.
Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is not quite Disney princess (Disney minor royalty, perhaps), a mix of boldness and naivety. She stands up to Othello, to a point, but is unaware of the machinations in which she is unwittingly embroiled.
Ayesha Dharker is a striking, rather sedate Emilia – one wonders how she and Iago came to be married – but comes into her own as the situation unravels. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Cassio is brash but not unappealing, and James Corrigan’s hapless Rodrigo brings humour in an excellent characterisation of this dupe and patsy. There is a fine turn from Brian Protheroe as Desdemona’s ranting father, as resolute in his bonkers opinions as a UKIP candidate: he can only attribute his daughter’s attraction to the Moor to witchcraft. What other explanation could there be?!
Also making an impression are Nadia Albina as the Duke, a hard-nosed CEO, and Scarlett Brookes’s Bianca, a lovelorn whore.
Energy levels run high throughout, as the ever-appealing Msamati carries out his plan to bring Othello down. That is all comes down to the presence or absence of a particular handkerchief wouldn’t withstand a more forensic approach, but Shakespeare – through Iago – gets us to go along with it. By revealing to us his tissue of lies beforehand, Iago keeps us one step ahead of the other characters, and so we don’t have to be as gullible and credulous as they.
With more laughs than you might expect, this Othello shocks and thrills rather than moves but is invariably entertaining and enjoyable.