“The time, the place, the torture”: the depiction of torture in Iqbal Khan’s Othello

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“The time, the place, the torture”: the depiction of torture in Iqbal Khan’s Othello

By Kelsey Ridge

Two US Army (USA) Military Police (MP) escort a detainee, dressed in his new orange jumpsuit to a cell at Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, Cuba. Camp X-Ray is the holding facility for detainees held at the US Navy (USN) Base during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

Two US Army (USA) Military Police (MP) escort a detainee, dressed in his new orange jumpsuit to a cell at Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, Cuba. Camp X-Ray is the holding facility for detainees held at the US Navy (USN) Base during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

The 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello directed by Iqbal Khan can readily be described as inspired by the War on Terror.  Actors wore khaki uniforms and carried guns, while an on-stage Messenger was replaced with satellite-video of someone filing a report from a desert bunker. The Duke, played by Nadia Albina, recalled wounded warriors. Most bluntly, on stage, Hugh Quarshie’s Othello supports and engages in “enhanced interrogation” – torture.  The appearance of torture was shocking, sufficiently so that discussion of it was a regular feature in reviews of the production.  The most important problem with the torture sequences, though, did not appear in the production or the reviews; namely, that’s not how torture works.

The appearances of torture that Othello are not accidental or incidental.  The first instance displayed an added silent scene of Othello’s men, under Othello’s supervision, torturing a hooded detainee, which one reviewer called “Abu Ghraib-style violence.”  The prisoner was threatened with, among other items, a power drill, reflecting the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri: “during the course of al-Nashiri’s debriefings, while he was blindfolded, [text redacted] [CIA OFFICER 2] placed a pistol near al-Nashiri’s head and operated a cordless drill near al-Nashiri’s body.”  The next depiction occurred in 3.3 in place of the 18th-century throttling scene.  Othello tied Iago’s hands to a chair and strangled him with a plastic bag to force him to talk.  To justify that decision, Khan argued, in a director talk at the RSC, that he has his Othello seek information from Iago how he believes soldiers now would – through torture.

Chillingly, following the first display of psychological torture the power drill was left on stage.  Desdemona, who entered just as the torture ended, and who was thus present on the stage when the victim was being led away,  never commented on the torture that had occurred or asked her husband about his presence for and complicity in torture.  Instead, she picked up the power drill and whimsically played with it.  It was never clear to the audience how she personally felt about these aspects of the war or even if she understood she was holding a weapon.  Her disinterest in the actual prisoner and her toying with an object of violence had their mirror in how the production as a whole treats torture.

Despite the technical awareness of the execution of torture, Khan’s production does not reflect any awareness of the failings of torture as an interrogation method.  The use of the power drill, for example, recalls a real instance; yet, in the case of al-Nashiri, the interrogator was not a qualified interrogator and used the power drill and gun to threaten al-Nashiri without approval, whereas in Khan’s production they are not only sanctioned but the use is being supervised by the most senior officer.  The 2015 production, in invoking torture, could have invoked the fact that “enhanced interrogation techniques” do not produce real and actionable intelligence, because people suffering torture will say anything to make it stop (Carlson and Weber Speaker about Torture 4).  According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program notes that “the CIA internally noted that reporting from CIA detainees—specifically CIA detainees subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques—was insufficient, fabricated, and/or unreliable.”  Indeed, the implication of the throttling scene is that Iago does not tell the truth, that, in the face of Othello’s violence, Iago doubles-down on his lies.  Scriptually, therefore, there would be support for the belief that torture had, again, produced only false information.  However, Khan’s production never engages with this fact or the reality that torture does not reveal actionable intel.  Instead, it appears to trade in a Jack Bauer-esque alternate reality where torture produces viable intelligence.

Khan’s Othello could have raised important questions about the use of torture.  It could have questioned the conviction in some civilians, including high-ranked ones, that torture works. It could have questioned the fiction presented by the British government at that time that only Americans had engaged in tortured, which has been demonstrated to be untrue.  Instead, the production participated in media’s historical perpetuation of myths about torture rather than correcting them.  Khan included torture as a horror of the modern world, yet he depicted it as though it were successful or productive.  When people believe torture works, they are more likely to support its use.  This production could have contributed to creating media that accurately depicts torture and its failings as an intelligence gathering tool.  Instead, it perpetuated old myths for shock value and, at best, shallow commentary on the modern situation it could have done more to accurately portray.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Kelsey Ridge

Kelsey Ridge is currently working towards her Ph.D. at the Shakespeare Institute. She received her M.A. in English (Shakespeare in History) at University College London and her B.A. at Wellesley College, where she studied English and East Asian Studies. Her research interests include feminist theory, the War on Terror, and Shakespeare.
  • AlanPB

    An interesting angle but isn’t the point that in the world in which this production takes place the participants believe that torture is effective? Shakespeare did not write a scene about the effectiveness of torture and thus the production was not the place to debate it.

    Not all modern settings of Shakespeare plays work but this was a highly effective production with strong and appropriate contemporary references.

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