Reviewed: Othello Starring Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati

One remarkable aspect of Shakespearian plays is their ability to reinvent themselves, changing their surface depending on cast and crew in order to reflect the ideas of the age, while nonetheless remaining exactly the same story as originally conceived. Like Doctor Who, if you will. Since 2009, the works of the Bard have reached an even wider audience, thanks to National Theatre Live, broadcasting live theatre performances from Stratford-upon-Avon across cinemas worldwide.

Last August, the spotlight was on Othello, a tale of loss, jealousy, rage, and ultimately love. And it’s been reinvented with Lucian Msamati as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first black Iago; almost a year later, it’s finally available on DVD and Blu-ray.

You’ll know Msamati from 2010’s The Vampires of Venice, and Hugh Quarshie, who plays the titular role, from Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks. But Othello is known for dealing with racism, Iago’s jealousy of his former friend partly resulting from this prejudice. So is this a mere gimmick, something many would call being politically correct, done to get more column inches? Or is it an important change reflecting a diverse society? Does it have an effect on the characters and their motivations?

Yet I was free of expectations when I attended the original screening, all those months ago. I knew nothing of it. The book was sitting at home, but I’d refrained from reading it because that’s not how Shakespeare intended people to experience it: Othello, and indeed all of his plays, were written for the stage. You need to see it. And, as a fan of Msamati particularly, this was the perfect opportunity.

The next three hours were utterly captivating, gut-wrenching, and wholly enjoyable. Those three hours (which included an interval and pre-show interviews) flew by. The production was dark, immersive, and powerful – and credit must go to… well, everyone.

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The cast and director, Iqbal Khan, will get praise lavished upon them, certainly, but first, a word about something vital, yet often glossed over. Previous plays have been notable for their memorable staging – The Merchant of Venice, for instance, was played against a completely gold backdrop while a huge pendulum swings away, counting down throughout Shylock’s demands for flesh – but so little has been said of Othello‘s set.

Perhaps that’s because it’s so smart and so ideal that it just become part of the experience. It must accomplish a lot, however: we’ve got to visit Venice, and Cyprus, taking us to a brawl, and into the intimate environs of Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom.

Immediately vying for attention is rippling water, reflecting cool light across the faces of Iago and Roderigo (James Corrigan) as we begin on a gondola, drifting through Venice. The body of water splits the stage in two, and you have to wonder if this will be present throughout. Once the action shifts to Cyprus, however, it’s gone. Unless you’re especially keeping an eye out for the transition, how this is accomplished isn’t obvious until later on: three huge panels cover the centre of the stage. The water is beneath and these panels move up and down to provide the cast with somewhere to walk or somewhere to wash, depending on the scene. It’s simple, but hugely effective and clever, utilised best in the second half, with Othello hiding underneath a slightly-raised grate and listening in to Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and Iago’s conversation. That’s when the mechanism is most blatant, but it’s also an important part of a touching scene between Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham) and Iago’s wife, Emilia (Ayesha Dharker, who you’ll recognise from 2008’s Planet of the Ood).

The concept behind the staging, designed by Ciaran Bagnall, likely comes from one of Othello‘s most quotable lines: “Put out the light, and then put out the light.” It’s a line that’s haunted me since I first heard it. In isolation, it seems like a ridiculous soliloquy, but this is all about context, and with the stage barely lit, it’s a precious and deeply sad sentiment.

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Othello is all about light and dark, in all senses. That opposition drives the story, but lighting in general forms a key part of the set. Iago’s damaged mind is represented in the bold contrasts and shady corners that occupy the space, adding further weight and presence to the cast. That’s another thing reminiscent of The Vampires of Venice: both make informed choices about lighting. Maybe it’s because both are at least partly set in the Italian city, and so mix grim moods with romantic hues.

Sudden darkness can just as swiftly be extinguished by fluorescent lights seemingly attached to great pillars stretching up into the gloom. It gives the play a strangely intimate quality, almost like you’re viewing a crime scene.

Elsewhere, simple candles hold a special place brightening up Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom: they’re romantic, sure, but also appear like protection too, forming a semi-circle around Othello’s sleeping wife. This is tainted, as the barrier is effectively destroyed. And then there’s the light from above. Far, far above, it appears. It’s like an evening’s sun is moving across a round patterned window, lending a church-like quality to the play’s close.

That, too, is another layer in this story: characters wear their beliefs around their necks – quite literally. Crucifixes are ever present, reminding us of the sin of adultery, yes, but also standing in opposition to the brutality of the leads. You get a good sense of Othello as a military general (his commanding nature as well as his savage anger) throughout, and this juxtaposes beautifully with his asking Desdemona to pray.

It might’ve been natural for Shakespeare to add Christianity into the mix; it remains an interesting aspect of Othello in particular. His reasoning – “If I quench thee, thou flaming minister/ I can again thy former light restore” – is of course flawed but nevertheless makes some semblance of sense, at least from his point of view.

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A Heavenly light seems to fall on Desdemona. Dressed in silvery white (and, as Othello says, with skin “as smooth as monumental alabaster”), Joanna Vanderham (The Paradise; Banished) absolutely shines as she shares her thoughts with Dharker’s Emilia, bathing and singing sadly before retreating to bed. The pair add vital emotional heart, but neither are as frail or retreating as they sometimes seem. Emilia shows such ferocity and passion towards the end, making up for the fact she’s barely seen in the first half. Meanwhile, it’s obvious that Desdemona has a lively spirit in her insistence that she come to Cyprus with her husband, but Vanderham gives a finely nuanced and ultimately heart-breaking performance in every scene.

She, perhaps, is the only one who doesn’t go through a transformation, her almost-Virginal ideals remaining intact despite Othello’s fall from grace. Even James Corrigan’s Roderigo changes from a lovable fool to a tragic figure caught up in events beyond his understanding; Cassio from ambitious high-achiever to a tainted loser; and Brabantio (Brian Protheroe) moves from frustrated denial to acceptance.

But what of our two leads?

Hugh Quarshie gives us a suitably tortured Othello, immediately commanding and all-together decent. But on the end of a pin, he can change. A haunting and scary scene at the conclusion of the first part is enlightening: we can see how easily he caves in to jealous rage. Death feels very real and thus terrifying. You really fear for Iago before inevitable dread kicks in after the interval. Grim acceptance settles over the audience for a while, but the final few scenes return your heart to your throat.

Quarshie does it superbly. His very presence on stage would eclipse the talent of lesser actors. Fortunately, the cast around him are all top of their game. But none more so than Lucian Msamati.

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He’s a real revelation, adding captivating intensity to an already fascinating character. Iago’s temperament is laid bare from the off, and Lucian portrays him as darkly witty and manipulative. Even when he’s in the background, you can’t help but see his twisted mind ticking over, evaluating and thinking up further twists to his scheme.

He addresses the audience in a note-worthy soliloquy, at once humourous and at another turn, genuinely disturbing – yet somehow still relatable. Then there are obsessive, instinctive moments where you know even his tormented self is forced to question what’s going on around him.

(That first half is an incredible piece of art, and Lucian is central to this. He seems to be in every scene for that debut section, delivering countless lines. He was great in Vampires of Venice, but here, he acts solidly for 95 minutes before a 20-minute interval, then he’s back in true afflicted form for another 80 minutes. His interpretation of the character is utterly compelling and perfectly realised.)

And so to his motives. Google ‘Othello Iago’ and ‘motives’ is an auto-suggestion, such is the interest in the inner workings of Iago’s mind. That Iago is played by a black actor in spite of tradition works wonders. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not for the press. It’s because it adds additional question about Iago’s prejudices. Why does he do this? Why? The play’s conclusion highlights this open-ended musing. I don’t think Iago truly knows, himself, but others might lay blame at status, at being passed over for promotion, at unwavering obedience for so long, at mere jealousy, at being crushed under foot again and again…

This production of Othello is a “heavy act with heavy heart,” and a genuine pleasure, despite the funereal tone. It’s a master class in writing, naturally, but also in acting.

Othello is released today on DVD and Blu-ray.

Images: by Keith Pattison, via the RSC.

(This review is based on an article published in August 2015 on Kasterborous.)