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OTHELLO Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon


The RSC made a bold statement by casting their first ever black Iago. But would it add another layer to one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies?
The theatre was full to the rafters, the demographic make up – as you’d expect- predominately white middle-aged upper class folk – a conversation for another time. Designer Ciaran Bagnall sets the scene with a stunning yet simple Venetian canal beautifully lit, and a gondola occupied by Iago (Lucian Msamati) and Roderigo (James Corrigan): grappling, threatening to capsize it:, a metaphor perhaps. The first reminder that Iago is black comes very early on. When Roderigo refers to him as “Thick lips” he stops dead in his tracks and gives Roderigo a hard look. Sadly, however this is the end of it: Director Iqbal Khan chooses not exploit the opportunity to add an extra layer.

Msamati deliveres his dialogue in his Zimbabwean accent, which gives Shakespeare’s words new life: he moves through the play effortlessly, landing every punch with precision. At times he sounded like a ‘hype man’ at a hip-hop concert, repeating words like ‘Villain’ ‘Corruption’ or whip’, finishing with ‘Boom’. The gullible Roderigo – played convincingly by Corrigan- wakes up Brabantio (Brian Protheroe) to deliver news that his daughter has been ‘abused’. Protheroe plays the concerned father well and we feel his pain when Desdemona chooses Othello over him.
As for Othello, we meet him first in good spirits; Hugh Quarshie glides onstage ultra cool, laid back, a swagger with authority. Asked by Iago if he is “fast married” he responds by dancing to a Venetian /Calypso guitar beat – nice touch. The following scene however is a little less convincing, partly because the costume worn by the Duke (Nadia Albina) and her company looked like something out of Red Dwarf. Hard to believe these guys could lead a country in war. News of activity from the Turks came by Skype, a ploy to convince us it was taking place today- sadly it didn’t work.
Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham) struts on stage, pleasing on the eye like a young Amanda Holden, but her character is quite irritating, reminding me of one the those pompous women from Chelsea who always get what they want. She seemed in love with the idea of Othello and not the man himself. The celebration after the war, though, was fantastic: soldiers drinking and dancing to Cypriot music. There’s a nice moment when Cassio (Jacob fortune- Lloyd) dances with Desdemona and Othello whispers in Cassio’s ear and takes over- a slight indication of jealousy, we could have done with more of that. Iago breaks out into a solo Zimbabwean folk song and the pay off is wonderful….’for heaven an excellent song’ says Cassio, riposting with a remix of Shaggy’s Mr Bombastic while beatboxing. A rap battle ensues between Cassio and a lively Montano (David Ajoa) which leads to blows, and had the younger generation on the edge of their seats.

But as Iago plants the seed of doubt in Othello, he moves too quickly from calm authority to jealous barbaric wreck: we needed glimpses of fragility earlier. There’s a random torture scene, blowtorches and staplers, I think put there by the Khan to prepare us for the coming violence. But it feels a little misplaced.
Something I always struggle with is why Emilia doesn’t question Iago about the handkerchief earlier- Khan’s interpretation confused me further, as a lot was made over the exchange of the handkerchief between Emilia (Ayesha Dharker) and her husband, to the point of tears from Dharker, giving the impression that she knew what Iago was capable of. Desdemona begins to find her way in the second act as we slowly begin to feel some sympathy; the strangulation was OK, “it is the cause” delivered with honesty though there were random lines missing like “I cannot give it vital growth again” and “they are cruel tears”. I’d be interested to know Khan’s thought behind this.
It didn’t ever feel as if Iago was in control, though. Msamati handles the verse very well but needs to be more sinister, with more gear changes: indeed across the cast the stakes just didn’t seem high. I didn’t care much for the characters and did inclusion of a black Iago add anything new? Not really. We lose the sense of Othello as an outsider.

box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 28 august
rating four     4 Meece Rating


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