“a voice potential/As double as the duke’s” : War, Disability, and Casting in Iqbal Khan’s Othello
By Kelsey Ridge, University of Birmingham
The 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello directed by Iqbal Khan can readily be described as influenced by War on Terror. Actors wore khaki uniforms and carried guns. The Duke, played by Nadia Albina, viewed Messenger reports over satellite-video with a person filing a report from what a desert bunker. Hugh Quarshie’s Othello supports and engages in “enhanced interrogation.” However, though this production was considered most notable to many for Lucien Msamati’s black Iago, it included a casting choice that, in current military context, is much more meaningful: Nadia Albina as the Duke.
Nadia Albina portrayed the Duke with a determination the part can lack, suggesting the strength of a military commander, as opposed to a more delicate civilian leader who needs to lean on a general for power. She gave the Senate muscle and weight. Moreover, Albina brought a physical quality to the role that gave it strength: Albina was born without a right forearm, which the costuming made no effort to hide or obscure. Surprisingly, while some reviews (and the RSC website) mention that the Duke was played by a woman, no one mentions she is an actress with a disability. While casting Albina in plays has previously ruffled a few feathers, Albina brought depth to this production with both her character interpretation and her physical presence.
In a War on Terror context, the decision to cast an actress with a disability raised the possibility that the Duke had served at the front lines and had lost the limb in the service, perhaps in an IED explosion. By 2015, according to A Guide to U.S. Military Casualty Statistics, 1,645 servicemembers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria had lost a limb from their service, though that figure ignores the 214 similarly wounded in ‘unaffiliated conflicts’ in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Of those injuries, 87.9% were caused by an explosive device. In a War on Terror context, apparent injury cements the Duke’s credentials as a leader. The actress’s disability changes the position of the Duke from a weak man hiding in his city from the realities of the situation into a leader who has seen the seriousness of war, suffered its consequences, and continued to lead, from a man hiding behind Othello into his equal in martial matters. It also reminds the audience of some of the physical costs borne by the soldiers fighting in the wars productions like these are aesthetically exploiting.
If the RSC were interested in continuing this development, they need look no further than their planned performance of Julius Caesar, a show that forces actors and directors to handle a woman who proves her constancy by giving herself “ a voluntary wound/ Here, in the thigh.” Imagine a Portia with a Go Army t-shirt and prosthetic leg demanding her husband explain himself. A Portia who asserts, “I did something I knew was dangerous, because I believed in it, and I live with the consequences. Do not dare to condescend to me about what I can handle.” A Portia whose voluntary wound is not irrational-seeming damage to her body but the physical sign of her commitments and her honor. Considering Angus Jackson’s assertion that the Roman plays are meaningful now for “the resonances with a lot of the activity that’s going on in British, European, and world-wide politics, in terms of people fighting for their political lives and literally fighting for their lives” the inclusion of such a Portia, or of any character with a disability, would be appropriate.
Depictions of physically disabled characters are not particularly common in early modern theatre, outside, perhaps, those Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper called the amputation plays. Yet, such injury and disability are as much a part of the modern world as they would have been a part of Shakespeare’s. Nadia Albina has said, “I have never been to the theatre and seen an actor on the stage who has a disability without playing a part that doesn’t call for it. I found that quite upsetting, but I knew it was something I had to face.” Albina’s contributions to theatre, at the RSC and elsewhere, already challenge that status quo. That trend should be followed much more widely. Actors with disabilities can and should be cast besides characters with disabilities, and casting decisions should consider the full implications of the modern context they otherwise employ. With all due respect to those excited or exercised by the participation of Lucien Msamati or Hugh Quarshie, the most interesting casting in the 2015 RSC Othello was Nadia Albina.