Performance Reviews

A World Too Close for Comfort: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Othello’ in Stratford-upon-Avon

On the first page of the program for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, a lone child soldier rests the butt of a rifle on the ground. The gun’s barrel leans idly against his shoulder as the child stares forlornly into the distance. With one picture, the RSC instantly prompts the audience to imagine Othello’s turbulent, short-lived, harsh childhood in a war-torn region or country like Sudan. In his program notes, Set and Lighting Designer Ciaran Bagnall reveals, “Iqbal [the Director] was very keen that we ‘said’ something with this production. For it to respond to the world we currently live in – a world we can recognize. For it not to live in a void. For it to be real. For it to be brutal. Broken.” RSC’s brilliant production combines images and sounds from Africa, the Middle East, and early modern Europe to create an anachronistic narrative that overloads the audience with references to many places and moments at once to construct a reality that is like ours, like the films and broadcast news that we view, and yet not our own. It is so close, however, that as the story unfolds and multiple cultural and political references compete for attention in each viewer’s mind, the setting for RSC’s Othello becomes an aptly uncomfortable reflection.

The set, costumes, and choreography for the production are smart and beautiful and clearly communicate the production’s creative focus. One central piece that deserves special recognition is the pool of water that the design team constructed in the stage’s center. The design allows the pool to be mechanically covered and uncovered with metal tiles to serve different functions in each scene. In the program Bagnall explains, “We wanted to use water in the production almost as another character in the play, and not just a simple element in the Venice scenes.” The water and its metal grates indeed become striking images in all of the scenes. The intricately designed metal tiles that sit at the bottom of the river for Iago and Roderigo in Act One, scene one, as they converse on a gondola, raise in Act One, scene three: the tiles become a table that the duke (Nadia Albina) uses as a conference table with a laptop while a flat screen TV is lowered by wires behind her. In the willow scene, the metal grates recede, and the water becomes a bath for Desdemona (Johanna Vanderham) to soak her feet in as Emilia (Ayesha Dharker) and she talk about men. Then, the women splash each other, in an instant becoming playful girls, yearning to break the tension of the previous scenes of domestic and emotional abuse. The Duke of Venice’s dress reminds one of Julie Taymor’s Prospera in the final scene of The Tempest and her jewelry references steampunk, while Desdemona’s (Joanna Vanderham) dresses and jewelry appear to be influenced by early modern conventions and pseudo-fantasy worlds like Game of Thrones. The set, costumes, stage combat, and dance choreography create connections between Shakespeare’s story, other popular fictional realms, and the audience’s reality.

Director Iqbal Khan casts a black Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and a black Iago (Lucian Msamati), a strong choice that may alter conventional audience perception of Iago’s racist motivations. In scenes with Roderigo or Cassio, Lucian Msamati deftly plays Iago as a lighthearted gamester and potential bully, while in other key monologues and scenes, Msamati reveals Iago as the cunning and sinister manipulator. The talented Hugh Quarshie’s Othello is a middle-aged, gray haired, lean, and virulent man who appears confident in his military ability and in himself. Quarshie mesmerizes audience members as he commands the stage. Joanna Vanderham, who some viewers may recognize as the female lead from BBC’s The Paradise series, expertly plays a young, twenty-something Desdemona full of life and opinions and deeply in love, emotionally and sensually, with her husband.

Hugh Quarshie (Othello) and Joanna Vanderham (Desdemona) in RSC's Othello directed by Iqbal Khan and designed by Ciaran Bagnall at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; photo by Keith Pattison; Production runs June 4 - August 28, 2015

Photo by Keith Pattison; Hugh Quarshie (center) as Othello, Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona (right), and Ayesha Dharker (back left) as Emilia in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello; directed by Iqbal Khan and designed by Ciaran Bagnall; production runs June 4 – August 28, 2015 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Casting two talented black actors as the leads creates a powerful performance of Iago’s changing and incomprehensible motives for destroying Othello’s world. Iago’s performance was compelling, contemporary, and powerful. Iago “hate[s] the Moor” but for what reason? Is it Cassio’s promotion, his suspicions about Othello and Emilia, how Othello moves so quickly up the ranks? Or is it how he mirrors Iago’s racial difference from the likes of Brabantio, the duke, and Cassio? Does Iago hate himself when he says “I hate the Moor?” Or does he hate Othello because they come from different cultural backgrounds or classes? The motive or motives remain unclear, as they do when one reads Othello. At times, the Iago-actor performs key scenes with a lighter tone than in previous productions that I have seen, but this choice works well because while this Iago is not as visibly hostile, he is logical, cold, and calculating, only showing his intense anger to Emilia and occasionally to Othello until the end.

Iago’s battleground, the Cyprus set, is an appropriate fusion of different cultural influences and political references. When the cast lands on the island, the set becomes a military camp, and the ensemble celebrates Othello and Desdemona’s arrival and marriage with a party. Hip hop music with a Middle Eastern backbeat and strings provide the tempo for a choreographed line dance, but the lines go in different directions and the actors create a cube of people that move in, out, and around together, like they are on the floor of a dance club. Iago then sings a tribal song after the dancing ends, and the song is solemn and full of grief. A drunk Cassio quickly dismisses Iago’s grief by singing a rendition of Shaggy’s “Mr. Boombastic” and then Cassio and Montano engage in a rap off, reminiscent of Eminem in 8 Mile or Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted, in which Cassio is a sore loser. The characters’ improvised rap off to a bongo backbeat becomes an intriguing addition to the Othello text.

Montano (David Ajao) jests through his rap lyrics that Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) was probably chosen for the office of lieutenant because of his white skin, and Montano adds that he “didn’t recognize Cassio without his leash.” While Montano is playing the game of tearing down one’s opponent in a rap off, the drunken Cassio is offended and starts a brawl. This action changes the audience’s perception of Cassio from a prep school cadet into a barbaric, immature ruffian: Cassio stabs Montano with a shard of glass from a beer bottle when Montano lunges at Bianca for hitting him with a beer bottle over the head. Montano’s dress suggests that he is either lower in class than Cassio or more of a true field officer instead of a toy soldier. Racial conflict is still a part of the play, but the acknowledgments of privilege due to class and connections are also displayed in this scene. When Montano openly questions and challenges Cassio, their interaction reflects Iago’s discrimination against Othello in other productions.

In her program note for the production, Ayanna Thompson argues that “While the RSC’s decision to cast two incredible black actors as Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and Iago (Lucian Msamati) is not entirely new, it allows for discussions about race and racism that are more expansive and current than the old black-and-white model. Racism, after all, does not cease to exist in multicultural environments. More horrifically, racism can be embraced by those who would be affected by it most.” Through the updated narrative, the RSC’s Othello production reveals the characters’ failings, and one hopes that our society will remedy instead of replaying the conflicts in our relationships and communities.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing additions to this production is the treatment of prisoners or detainees within the Cyprus camp. A torture scene replaces the brief messenger scene, and Iago and other soldiers torture, drown, and beat a white man who has a black sack tied around his neck. As Othello looks on, Iago and the other men circle the kneeling man with a drill and other intimidating instruments of torture. The prisoner shouts for mercy and at Othello’s nod is led off as Othello and Iago exit in opposite directions after exchanging a file. After the first torture scene, Desdemona picks up the drill in the next scene to drill in a loose board and impishly looks up at Othello, as if to prove her usefulness at camp. As she begs Othello to talk with Cassio, the drill is forgotten about, but the image of the way the men used the drill in their interrogations in the previous scene remains in the audience members’ minds.

When Othello’s insecurities lead him to question Desdemona’s love, he then interrogates Iago, punishing him for making a speculation that causes him to doubt his relationship with Desdemona. This is one of the most gripping and uncomfortable scenes in this production. Othello uses zip ties to pin Iago in a chair then proceeds to threaten Iago with a hammer, holding it to Iago’s eye, to his knee, and then in his mouth as Iago speaks. The intense scene makes one wish that Iago would give up the handkerchief, even if you know how the play ends. The scene shocks the audience with its contemporary reference to the reality of inhumane interrogation tactics. Although this choice proves to be effective in updating the narrative, audience members could lose sympathy for Othello based on his methods and actions in this scene, while some playgoers may think that Iago deserves the punishment. One could even think that this torture scene further implies that Othello is barbaric and that Iago is the victim, which leads to more conflicting questions. Is it necessary for Othello to gain back trust and sympathy from the audience in order for the play to be successful? How does Iago go forward with his plan knowing that he is working with a rash and powerful general? How could he not?

Hugh Quarshie (Othello) and Lucian Msamati (Iago) in RSC's Othello; photo by Keith Pattison; 2015

Photo by Keith Pattison; Hugh Quarshie (left) as Othello and Lucian Msamati (right) as Iago in RSC’s Othello (2015)

Two interactions with Bianca bring the torture scenes into sharp relief. When Cassio first pleads with her to copy the handkerchief, he places the black cloth over her face and kisses her, shifting the black sack of a previous scene into an erotic object. When Bianca seeks to help Cassio after he has been wounded, she is taken off to be questioned, and after the audience has seen the previous two torture scenes, an uncomfortable feeling settles over the room as we know that questioning means intense physical and psychological interrogation.

In the middle of the production’s program, an image of two black soldiers with military caps accompanies a program note by Paul Prescott, entitled “Whose Play Is It?” The image and Prescott’s article provide the audience with a reminder that this could be as much Iago’s play as Othello’s. The two men sit in white plastic chairs in the desert; they both look to the left, but one soldier’s body and head remains facing forward, while the other looks to his left, changing his posture. So in the end, one could also wonder whom the child soldier in the front of the program is meant to represent: Iago, Othello, or both men? Does the image also speak to us or are we shielded from the child and the men’s world?

RSC’s Othello, which runs through August 28, is not to be missed. While I saw the play on a preview night in June, the production still resonates in my mind.

Allison Kellar Lenhardt

Author Allison Kellar Lenhardt

Allison Kellar Lenhardt is Assistant Professor of English and Honors Program Director at Wingate University, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Allison also serves as the Director of Wingate's English-Speaking Union Shakespeare Competition for middle and high school students. Her teaching and research interests include early modern drama, performance, media studies, and adaptation. Her most recent publications discuss the American Shakespeare Center's use of original practices in their Actors' Renaissance Season and the Folger Shakespeare Library's digital image collection and other digital archives as tools for teaching undergraduate research and digital literacy. Her book project examines early modern dramatic composition, actors’ parts, affect, and memory.

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