Power, pride and passion on parade in RSC’s sharp Othello

Othello (Hugh Quarshie) in an agressive clench with Iago (Lucian Msamati)
Othello (Hugh Quarshie) in an agressive clench with Iago (Lucian Msamati)

Peter Ormerod reviews the RSC’s production of Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford.

However it’s done, Othello is an intensely political play.

When performed in the conventional manner, with Othello the sole black face in a sea of scheming white, the racial overtones are inescapable; other productions down the years have mixed up the colours to bring out different themes from the text. The striking departure taken by the RSC in this sharp-edged production is to have both a black Othello and a black Iago, which if anything adds to the complexity of their extraordinary relationship, an enduringly powerful depiction of a certain sort of brotherhood.

The tale still makes for a cracking political and romantic thriller. Othello, a heroic and for the most part dignified general in the Venetian army, secretly marries his beloved Desdemona; Iago exploits this love to exact revenge on Othello who, until it’s too late, remains convinced that “honest Iago” is a trustworthy man.

But where this production really scores is in its manipulation of the audience’s emotions. Lucian Msamati is a winning Iago, charming us through wit and charisma to the point of complicity in his treachery. He’s the mate you’d want to turn up to enliven an otherwise dull gathering in the pub, but who will probably lead you to mischief or worse before you know it.

Hugh Quarshie is equally endearing in his own way as Othello, radiating dignity and wisdom but not to the detriment of bonhomie. It’s also important to keep in mind that he is no saint, as a distressing scene of torture reminds us in the first half. And Desdemona is played with great gravity and depth by Joanna Vanderham in a performance imbued throughout with poise and control.

Each takes their place within a fresh, vibrant, sassy and swaggering production.

Director Iqbal Khan deserves plaudits for taking brave decisions that, in lesser hands, would surely provoke cringes. A ‘rap battle’ in the first half between the nauseating wannabe Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and the effortlessly cool Montano (David Ajao) works far better than it should; it is true to the feel of the show and illuminates some telling traits of the characters. The variety of costume lends an air that is timeless but not characterless; the overriding sense is of military men operating in a near-past Middle Eastern theatre of war, waterboarding and all.

It’s not successful on all counts. The colour of the first half is almost entirely absent in a fairly straight and procedural second half, although the vigour of the performances remain, while the attempts to roughen Othello’s character sometimes risk sapping the audience’s sympathy for him, which would be fatal to the play’s emotional appeal.

But it’s a strong production indeed that can keep an audience captivated for two hours and 55 minutes, and that’s what Khan and his able team have managed with aplomb.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but for those with open minds and a feel for the play’s eternal truth, there is much here to relish while in the theatre and ponder long afterwards.