Othello is known to probably be one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Many famous actors have played the two great parts of Othello and Iago and many productions have challenged and experimented with the theme of race and colour in the play. The RSC does something I’ve never seen before; casting two black actors to play the two central characters, and in this production directed by Iqbal Khan it works really well.
Khan brings the play into a very modern setting, and clearly starting in Venice (with a small canal and a gondola as the setting for the first scene). The additional modernisms in the text (such as a rap battle during the party) are slightly unnecessary, but somewhat justified (in relation to the time and setting).
Ciaran Bagnall’s set centres around an old ruined archway and a small pit of water that becomes a canal and a small pool, among other things. Bagnall’s lighting design shows the old ruins off beautifully, creating large shadows pounding across the stage.
The best performance of the night comes from Lucian Msamati’s Iago. The question: ‘Is Iago a pure villain?’ has been debated a lot over the years. I am not about to answer that question, but Msamati’s Iago is more than just a villain. Even through his rendition of an African song during the party, it is clear that there is more to this character than meets the eye. His relationship with James Corrigan’s Roderigo in the first scene of the play is a wonderful paring, showing Iago as more of a paternal figure at times. His relationship with Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Cassio is more brotherly, and then with Othello completely different again. He is a complex character, but Msamati knows him inside and out.
Hugh Quarshie returns to the RSC to play the title character. In my opinion, Iago is the much more interesting of the two characters but Othello does have one big change in his character. He becomes paranoid that his wife (Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona) is having an affair with his lieutenant, Cassio. He decides that he will murder his wife. This sudden change in character has been played differently over the years, and here we see Quareshie build up this anger and paranoia over time. In Act 3 Scene 3, he tortures Iago for information about the supposed lovers. We see what Othello is capable of.
However when we get the final scene of the play, we are slightly disappointed. The scene should build and reach a climax at the end (it is after all the big finale to the play), and it doesn’t. I get the sense that this has been attempted as it does grow in intensity, however it just doesn’t quite reach the point you expect it to. Emilia (played beautifully by Ayesha Dharker) seems to be the most devastated one on stage by the end. She appears to be playing a different scene to everyone else, the scene they all should be playing. Unfortunately it falls slightly flat.
This is a very well executed production of one of Shakespeare’s best plays, led by a very strong and tight company of actors, with a standout performance from Lucian Msamati as Iago. It builds and grows as the play goes on, but the final scene is a bit disappointing, not reaching the climax that this play should.
Review by Elliott Wallis
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
4th June – 28th August 2015
Trailer | Othello | Royal Shakespeare Company
Othello is the greatest general of his age. A fearsome warrior, loving husband and revered defender of Venice against its enemies. But he is also an outsider whose victories have created enemies of his own, men driven by prejudice and jealousy to destroy him. As they plot in the shadows, Othello realises too late that the greatest danger lies not in the hatred of others, but his own fragile and destructive pride.
After more than a decade working in film and television on projects from Star Wars to Holby City, Hugh Quarshie returns to the RSC to play Shakespeare’s Othello. He was last seen with us in Faust and Julius Caesar (1996). Hugh will play opposite Lucian Msamati in the role of Iago, returning to the RSC following his role as Pericles in 2006. The production is directed by Iqbal Khan (Much Ado About Nothing 2012).
2 hrs 55 mins + 20 min interval
Othello will be broadcast live to cinemas on 26 August 2015
Friday 19th June 2015