Othello dir. Iqbal Khan, performed by the RSC at the RST, 26th August 2015, live cinema broadcast at the City Screen, York.
I was shocked by my own complacency toward race when I first saw this trailer for Iqbal Khan’s RSC production of Othello a couple of months ago. Othello is speaking to Desdemona, but as the camera swings from him to her and back again, something has shifted – the tone of voice, the words, the face. Was I really confused who was speaking for a moment? That was a directorial intention, I hope, because there is only room for one minority leading actor in Othello, right? Wrong.
Khan’s production, broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Thursday, ‘made history’ (in the UK and for the RSC at least) by casting Lucian Msamati as Iago opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Quarshie has long expressed ambivalence about the depiction of ‘the Moor’ not only on stage but by Shakespeare’s representation itself, famously questioning whether black actors should even play the role (although he never definitively concluded that they shouldn’t: see also Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 2004 Guardian piece, ‘My Problem With the Moor’). The subtle ways in which Khan’s casting recalibrated how we perceive Othello as the ‘race play’ has been explored by many reviewers, with Dr Peter Kirwan noting that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself’. Both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black but because they both held rank. As Quarshie notes, in both early modern ‘Venice’ and supposedly ‘post-racial Britain’, the general is one of ‘the only black men […] who isn’t either a cleaner, a soldier or a servant’. Thus Iago’s sense of betrayal at being passed over for promotion for the less experienced, white Cassio makes total sense. The contemporary, 21st century setting allowed for a reading in which this Venetian society, disturbingly familiar, appeared to think that it was ‘colourblind’ – the Duke’s own daughter would be allowed to marry a ‘Moor’ if he was like Othello, apparently. Yet a feckless young white man didn’t think twice about referring to a high-ranking military leader as ‘the thick lips’ to his black friend and everyone was a bystander to casual and institutionalised racism when it came down to it. Even the righteous Desdemona compromised herself from the outset. ‘”I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”? Really??’ repeated Quarshie/Othello incredulously, only half teasing her. Although the casting of Msamati problematised what is now seen as a simplistic interpretation – that the motivation for Iago’s malignity is racism – it is important to remember that as late as the 1980s critics were pointing out that overlooking racism as a motive and a context in the play was itself deeply problematic (see Roger Day ‘Reading Othello‘ in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon 1996). And Quarshie made his Othello either vocally challenge or reallocate lines that he argues that no black man, if there had been a black man in Shakespeare’s company, would ever had said. Thus Desdemona’s reputation was as ‘begrimed and black’ as Iago’s face, not his.
Msamati, however, does not believe ‘that what drives Iago is anything racial at all‘. When he improvised on Roderigo’s imagery, moving rapidly from the derogatory ‘thick lips’ to the bestial Barbary horse and ‘old black ram/ […] tupping your white ewe’, he did not seem to be expressing self-loathing; rather, he grasped at an opportunity to exploit the animalistic stereotypes still prevalent in a society where white masculinity sees itself threatened by black male sexuality, and he did this simply in order to ensure that Brabantio would be enraged and disgusted enough to curtail the elopement of his daughter. Msamati sees Iago’s motivation as something ‘deeper, more dangerous, [and] emotional’: he behaves like a ‘jilted jealous boyfriend’ he says in the pre-streaming material. This gives an utterly convincing and confessional edge to Iago’s sudden claim to Othello that ‘I lay with Cassio lately’.
The scene in which this dialogue takes place is central to Khan’s re-visioning of the play, and it was a scene that raised many questions. It is usually performed as a paint by numbers demonstration of how Iago ‘[…]put the Moor/Even into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure[…]/And practising upon his peace and quiet,/Even to madness’. But, as I have already said, this was a production that sought to disrupt complacencies. The ‘noble Moor’, after all, is as problematic a stereotype as ‘the old black ram’. Quarshie’s Othello was neither. Instead he was a complex man who thrived on power and control: verbal, emotional and physical. The production’s emphasis here is on the culture of militarism: Othello was a mercenary general, a man who fought wars as much for his own personal gain (money, status, reputation). The implication was, he could be relied on to get results for Venice regardless of any rules of engagement or human rights conventions. And so, previously, we have seen a nameless, faceless man dragged on stage, tortured with drills and waterboarded, clearly under the command of Othello. Then, in a shocking and graphic reversal of power roles, Iago was presented not as the auteur of the tragedy but as a victim of his own machinations, a man who had already lost control of the plot by act three. When Othello demanded to ‘Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it/That the probation bear no hinge nor loop/To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!’ Iago was strapped to the same chair as the general’s last victim. Again tortured with the contents of the tool box and nearly suffocated with a plastic bag in a scene worthy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, what else was he supposed to say?’ In this production, it was Msamati’s Iago who became human and vulnerable.
On one level, I found this scene extremely effective. Firstly, I like grotesque violence in my early modern stage plays – the tearing out of a heart or a tongue, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes on stage. Sanitizing man’s inhumanity to man is a dangerous thing. If it happens off-stage, out of sight, we don’t have to face the fact that we are complicit in it. It also made sense of Othello’s breakdown, in which the routine violence and abuse of his day job inevitably spills over into his personal life. Quarshie’s charismatic but deeply unpleasant Othello critiques the ‘nobility’ that is often unquestioningly bestowed on ‘our’ military personnel, as we turn a blind eye to, or even excuse, their sometimes illegal and murderous actions. What bothers me, however, was the peripheral nature of these allusions to the crimes committed by western forces at places such as Abu Ghraib. They weren’t centralised enough to make the production a political allegory, as in the work of Sulayman al-Bassam. I felt the production needed to have the courage of its convictions and much more overtly address the connections it appeared to suggest between militaristic masculinity/ entitlement/violence (domestic or otherwise), and western foreign policy in the wake of the First Gulf War. This was nearly political theatre, but not quite. We remained too wrapped up in what would happen to our star-crossed lovers (even if one was a violent narcissist) to remember to care what happened to the faceless man once he was hauled off stage. As Kirwan argues, there was a danger that the torture scenes became a device.
Nonetheless, this was thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling theatre. The power play between the central characters and the larger society was nuanced and complex, as was the prejudice around both race and gender. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona was particularly strong, rejecting the often infantalised, over-feminised interpretations that still dominate productions, although her fabulous dresses (somewhere between Game of Thrones and Frozen) didn’t quite ring true. Surely this was a woman who wore trousers? Her death also seemed slightly on the traditional, tame side in a production that was not traditional or tame. Yes, she fought back, but I anticipated more disturbing violence after Othello put out the light with his boot. A man killing his wife should not be prettified.
Having said that, although I’m sometimes slightly disappointed by the predictability of the RSC’s work, directors like Khan and Aberg are bringing an engaging and energizing perspective, and although I’ve criticized Greg Doran before about his ‘colourblind’ casting practices, productions commissioned by him like this are beginning to remedy the fact that the RSC itself often presented a world where minority actors were routinely servants, soldiers or five-line dukes. Listen to the Male, Pale and Stale RSC debate 2015 here.
See Andrew Dickson on Othello and race here.