Is it time for a black Iago?Tragedy

  • Andrew Cowie

NT Othello 2013 (2)Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Othello, with Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, was a big hit this year; it won five star reviews in the press and the live transmission played to cinema audiences around the world. Several critics noted that Hytner had reconstructed the play to make it less about racism – only Brabantio is openly racist and his comments make the other characters visibly uncomfortable – and more about class and loyalty. So if the play isn’t about race, why haven’t we seen a black Iago yet?

Laurence Olivier cast a long shadow over Shakespeare on the British stage. Actors and directors who came after him either followed his example, as in the lingering Oedipal Hamlet/Gertude kiss in the closet scene which haunted the play for decades, or kicked against it to redefine the role, as Antony Sher did in Bill Alexander’s production of Richard III at the RSC in 1984. Olivier’s 1965 film of Othello, based on the 1964 Old Vic stage production, belongs to an era when ‘blacking up’ was the norm and when interpretations of Othello equated colour with character. As Adrian Lester said of Olivier’s Othello in an interview in The Telegraph newspaper, ‘He’s doing a very generalised parody. It’s colour as character, not just colour as colour.’

Olivier’s Othello is a white construct of a black male identity; physically powerful, highly sexualised, emotionally intemperate and gullible. It is unthinkable now for a white actor to black up for a role but the idea that Othello behaves as he does, not because he’s Othello but because he’s black, persists. As recently as 2004, the last time the RSC staged the play, Greg Doran’s production, with two actors of South African descent, Sello Maake ka-Ncube and Antony Sher as Othello and Iago respectively, presented an exoticised Othello, defined by his ethnicity. As Antony Sher said to his co-star in their 2004 conversation in The Guardian, ‘I remember, in rehearsals, you began reverting to an almost tribal ancestral behaviour, as if you were summoning the ancestors’.

For some black actors the problem isn’t the casting, it’s the play, and they don’t want to go near it. The actor and playwright, Kwame Kwei-Armah, avoided playing Othello on the grounds that ‘the story of the “old black ram” who is “tupping your white ewe” [doesn’t] really encompass my world view’. And in a 2004 Guardian article he quotes Hugh Quarshie’s essay Second Thoughts About Othello in which Quarshie says that, as a play originally written by a white playwright to be performed by white actors for a predominantly white audience, ‘Perhaps Othello is the one [part] which should most definitely not be played by a black actor. Does he not risk making racial stereotypes legitimate and true?’.

Adrian Lester had no such reservations but he was determined to kill off the ‘colour as character’ stereotype, ‘He doesn’t kill his wife because he’s black, he isn’t jealous because he’s black.’ But as long as Iago is played by a white actor, the defining image, reproduced in all the National Theatre’s publicity, is of black/white racial opposition. So if you want to invite the audience to consider what else the play might be about maybe a black Othello isn’t enough, maybe you need a black Iago too?

America is ahead of the UK here. In 1997 the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC staged Jude Kelly’s ‘photo negative’ Othello with Patrick Stewart in the title role in which Kelly preserved, but reversed, the black/white opposition but in 1990, in what sounds like a much more radical and interesting interpretation, they cast two black actors, Andrew Braugher and Avery Brooks, opposite each other as Iago and Othello. So why haven’t we seen a black Iago in the UK yet?

I must admit, the most interesting casting I’ve seen was not of Shakespeare’s play but Verdi’s opera, Otello. When Graham Vick directed it for the Birmingham Opera Company in 2009 all the principals, Othello, Iago and Cassio, were played by black singers, as were the supporting roles of Lodovico and Montano. It wasn’t colour-blind but it showed a greater diversity of black experience, it defused the risk of the sole black character being defined by his ethnicity and it introduced an interesting new group dynamic between ambitious black characters fighting their way to the top in what was still recognisable as a predominantly white world.

What do you think? Should black actors be able to audition for more than one role in Othello or is that just bending Shakespeare out of shape in the name of political correctness?

Author: Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare.