In 2013 I posted an article on this blog saying it’s time a black actor was cast as Iago. Now, in 2015, the RSC has, for the first time, cast a black actor, Lucian Msamati, in the role. Coincidence? Well yes, probably, but if it means Greg Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a reader then, hi Greg.
Iqbal Khan’s production of Othello at the RSC opened at an interesting time in June 2015. The American civil rights activist, Rachel Dolezal, had just been revealed to have white parents but she said in an interview, ‘I identify as black’ and Steven Berkoff asserted the right of white actors to play Othello on the grounds that ‘great drama is colour-blind’. Meanwhile the actor and writer, Tim Crouch, whose 2005 play, An Oak Tree, is on a tenth anniversary tour this summer, called for a return to a Shakespearean idea of theatre representation in which all an actor has to do to play anything or anybody is to, ‘walk on stage and I say I’m someone else’.
So the RSC’s Othello, with its two black leads, Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago, and ethnically diverse supporting cast, is an interesting and timely contribution to the debate. Can you be black if you want to be or is that cultural appropriation? Can anyone play anything on stage or is that a one-way street which allows white, male actors to play black and female characters while denying the same range of opportunities to black actors and to women?
The first thing to say is that Lucian Msamati is brilliant and the play makes perfect sense with a black Iago. There are some references to Msamati’s own ethnicity; for example, Iago mocks Roderigo when he refers to Othello as ‘the thick lips’ and there’s a rap battle between Cassio and Montano which reveals racial tensions between the soldiers. For the most part, though, removing the binary black and white casting of Othello and Iago defuses the racial stereotyping some productions impose on the play and it frees Othello from being the sole representative of a black, male identity and allows him to simply be one amongst many.
The set, which serves as both Venice and Cyprus with only a flown arch and window to differentiate them, suggests the ruined grandeur of an ancient civilisation suffering recent civil unrest. There are shabby, crumbling stone arches upstage centre, ‘stop the war’ graffiti stage right and bullet holes in the stucco stage left. An onstage water feature serves as a canal in Venice and as a pool in Cyprus; it’s covered by a wrought metal grid which rises above the waterline to create a solid dry stage and sinks below it to reveal the water as required.
Fotini Dimou’s costume design creates a distinct visual world, contemporary without being naturalistic, which avoids placing the action anywhere specific. The military uniforms look normal enough but the civilians are dressed in a range of glossy and textured fabrics which at times suggest Italian haute couture and at others Disney villains and villainesses. Brian Protheroe’s Brabantio, in a purple velvet blazer, has his own private black-clad army while Othello, in a matching purple frock coat, commands a troop of soldiers dressed in khaki. Desdemona’s dress has an enormous fifties shawl collar, the Nehru jacket makes a comeback on some of the men and Othello arrives in Cyprus wearing a gold trench coat.
The physical similarity between Othello, played by the white haired, sixty year old Hugh Quarshie, and Brabantio, played by the white haired, seventy year old Brian Protheroe, makes Othello less of a love match for Desdemona than a father figure and there’s little sign of passion on either side. In her heels and sixties updo Desdemona is taller than both her husband and her father which, together with her brisk, no-nonsense Home Counties accent, suggests a capable military wife and daughter rather than an impressionable girl.
The moor of Venice tends to be played as either a north African Muslim Arab or a sub-Saharan of indeterminate or no faith but in this production Othello and Desdemona both make the sign of the cross to identify themselves to the audience as Catholic. This places the action firmly in the context of the historical events on which Shakespeare based the play; 16th century Roman Catholic Venice defending its colony in Cyprus from the Muslim Ottoman empire. It also invites comparisons with the post-9/11 war on terror, there is a waterboarding torture scene too, but there are no signs of the Muslim presence Othello’s Catholic army has been sent to defend Cyprus against which leaves the politics frustratingly unresolved.
These loose ends, described by Clare Brennan in The Observer newspaper as ‘visual faffery’, pile up throughout the show. Iago fiddles with cigarettes he never lights, Desdemona has a cup of tea she never drinks and throughout the whole of Act 3, scene 3, in which Iago sows the seeds of jealousy in Othello’s mind, he messes about with a satellite dish for a military field communications system which never works. Elsewhere Cassio neither looks nor sounds remotely drunk, Bianca is reduced to a tattooed tart who shows no sign of doting on Cassio and because Othello is such a calm, unflappable elder statesman there’s no passion for Iago to play on and no sign that he killed Desdemona because he was ‘wrought in the extreme’.
It all adds up to a rather flat production; with the exception of Iago, who grows in every scene, the lack of progression when the action relocates from Venice to Cyprus corresponds with a lack of development in the characters or their relationships. In a radio interview Hugh Quarshie quoted the American academic, Harold Bloom, as saying the play is Othello’s tragedy but Iago’s play. Lucian Msamati’s performance makes the second part definitely true but Quarshie struggles to scale any great tragic heights and it remained, for me, a stubbornly unfocused and unresolved production.