The Royal Shakespeare Company has made history by casting its first black actor to play Iago in Othello and, after seeing Lucian Msamati’s performance, one has to ask why it has taken so long. Isn’t it logical that the “noble” Moor (who is not so noble here) would bare his soul to a kinsman?
The race card is never more prevalent than in Iqbal Khan’s multi-racial, modern dress, production which opened at Stratford-on-Avon last night.
I initially thought that Msamati’s malevolent Iago was a little too jovial, brushing off racist insults with a quip rather than a sneer.
But it soon becomes clear that Shakespeare’s manipulative villain is seething with resentment at seeing his promotion go to a Caucasian, Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).
Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is similarly incensed that his beautiful blonde daughter has secretly married Othello. He’s convinced that the girl must have been bewitched with magic spells.
And later, when Othello’s troops relax around a camp fire, there’s an embarrassing scene where Cassio tries to rap in a bid to integrate with the black soldiers.
Hugh Quarshie gives us a rather reserved Othello. He doesn’t take centre stage in this story but quietly leads from the rear. His speeches are rather subdued, spoken by someone perhaps still lacking confidence despite being in a position of general.
But Iqbal Khan isn’t prepared to gentrify this Moorish outsider who has risen from slavery to command armies. We see the true soldier who sanctions torture (of the most shocking kind) and who lashes out (with a ferocity that made the press night audience collectively gasp) to strike his young wife.
Quarshie and Msamati work well together, the former is hesitant and reserved, the latter duplicitous, hate-filled and playing the long game to exact revenge.
Caught in the middle of this power play is the hapless and love-sick Roderigo (an endearing comedy turn by James Corrigan) and a noble Cassio, who are used by Iago to whip up Othello’s jealousy.
This is a compelling production that exposes raw emotion in all its characters. Iago’s wife, Emilia (Ayesha Dharker) is used by her cold husband and is horrified by the result while Joanna Vanderham’s spirited Desdemona pays the ultimate price.
There is a lot of emphasis on honesty, with “honest Iago” constantly being lauded by his general. He’s incredibly naive for such a great leader of men.
The story of Othello’s downfall is played out on a stunning vaulted set, cleverly designed by Ciaran Bagnall, which even includes a stretch of Venetian canal.
And, without wanting to sound girlie about this, Desdemona’s costumes (by Fontini Dimou) are simply divine.
Othello runs, in rep, on the RSC main stage until August 28. It is broadcast live from the RSC on August 26.
A less noble and more brutal, battle scarred Moor appears in Iqbal Khan’s compelling multi-racial production of Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company.