Royal Shakespeare Company
BBC4 and iPlayer
Othello is the first of the BBC’s Shakespearian ‘Culture in Quarantine’ series to exploit the opportunities offered by a television broadcast. The camera offers close-ups and overhead ‘bird’s eye’ shots that would not be available in the theatre.
With Othello, director Iqbal Khan uses an apparently simple idea to devastating effect. Casting Lucian Msamati as the first black actor to play the villain Iago could be dismissed as a gimmick, but the way in which Khan uses this development makes one of Shakespeare’s best plays even more compelling and dramatic.
The conventional approach to the play has Othello as a heroic outsider—a black Moor who, by virtue of his military prowess, has won the respect of the white Venetian community in which he lives, risen to the rank of general and secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. Iago is a crafty villain—preying on the psychological insecurities of the other characters and manipulating them to satisfy his own petty grievances. Iqbal Khan suggests both characters have mental health issues. When agitated, Iago compulsively cleans his hands and the stage. Othello shows signs of a split personality—among civilians smiling, eloquent and confident yet he also tortures prisoners and uses the same techniques on Iago.
In this modern-day production, Othello is not the only black officer in the army but commands a multi-racial unit allowing racial tensions to add to the power of the play. Iago pretends he is not offended and treats racial slurs as a joke. Cassio responds to a mournful song by the black officers with an embarrassing attempt at a rap song.
Hugh Quarshie’s interpretation is of a tarnished, rather than noble, character. Othello is complicit in the waterboarding of prisoners, making it likely his progress through the ranks is due to willingness to submit to the shady commands of his superiors as much as any personal merit. Othello’s decision to promote a white officer instead of Iago may also reflect his willingness to defer to, rather than challenge, authority. The sense of moral compromise that hangs over Quarshie is such one begins to wonder if Othello might be inclined to be abusive towards Desdemona even without Iago’s prompting.
The grievances of Iago are expanded from his personal trivial concerns about being overlooked for promotion. Lucian Msamati’s righteous indignation suggests Iago is offended by Othello’s eagerness to fit in with white society and regards him as a traitor to their shared race. This is Iago as political agitator rather than someone trying to avenge a petty grudge.
With a strong political background and fascinating ambiguous characters, this is a gripping and deeply moving interpretation of Othello.
Reviewer: David Cunningham