Watching Othello (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2015, directed by Iqbal Khan)

I am a survivor of A-level English as it was taught in the mid-1970s. Over the years, I’ve made my peace with my A-level set texts – I see virtues in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge that I didn’t see when young, and I have come to actively enjoy T.S. Eliot’s work. Evelyn Waugh and I have agreed to go our separate ways without rancour, on my part at least, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains one of my favourite texts even now. However, while I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays very much, I have steered clear of Othello since that time, because the experience was just so appalling.

In the mid-70s Britain was trying to come to terms with the arrival of British Asian citizens expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, and also with the rise of the National Front, all this on top of thirty post-war years of continuing discrimination against people of colour from all parts of the world (Enoch Powell was a very visible political presence when I was a child, and I do recall the controversy over his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech). Looking back, one might imagine such a social context would provide an interesting background against which to study Othello, even bearing in mind the mechanistic nature of teaching to pass exams. However, I was taught text rather than context; the party line was pretty much that while Othello was a good general he was resented for the colour of his skin, and as a result felt himself to be inferior and an outcast. He’d convinced Desdemona to run away with him because she was an impressionable little thing, and if he were married to her, everyone would have to accept him. In other words, we were directed to believe everything Brabantio said about his daughter and Othello.

In the same way, we never questioned the idea of Iago being evil incarnate. We were told he was evil, and so he was. Always had been, always would be. Why did he do what he did? Because he was jealous. Obviously. He’d been passed over for preferment. Maybe he thought Othello was getting above himself by marrying Desdemona. Perhaps he didn’t like being told what to do by a black man (which is probably as near as we came to context). But in the end, these were simply provocations. Iago didn’t really need a reason because he was above everything else evil and liked messing with people’s minds. And he was, of course, white. We never questioned that either.

On the other hand, we certainly questioned Othello’s blackness. We spent what now seems to be an inordinate amount of time discussing what Shakespeare meant by ‘Moor’ and by ‘black’. Which is not to say that we in any way discussed the existence of a Moorish empire in southern Europe, or the circulation of peoples around the Mediterranean, let alone the idea that Elizabeth I was not very happy about the presence of black people in London, and that possibly Othello reflected some of these anxieties. This material was barely being discussed in universities, so no chance of hearing about it further down the academic food chain. What we actually engaged with, so far as I can recall, though it probably wasn’t spelled out in quite those words, was whether Othello was acceptably black or unacceptably black. What was the colour of his skin? Would we object to having him as a neighbour?

‘Moor’ apparently meant all sorts of things; I suspect our teacher was trying to intimate that it basically meant ‘outlandish’ or ‘unusual’, or ‘not from around here’, and in doing so was trying to suggest that Othello was only just a bit darker than your average Londoner. Actually, I have no idea what my teacher was trying to suggest, because I suspect he or she didn’t know either, except insofar as we weren’t going to have a conversation about race or about white actors blacking up. One would have thought it would be amazingly difficult not to have a conversation about blacking up, especially given Olivier’s ghastly performance as Othello, in the film, but we managed it. And bear in mind that a staple of Saturday entertainment on BBC1 at this point was still a bunch of white men blacking up and singing. The Black and White Minstrel Show did not finally vanish from the BBC until 1978, a year after I left school. In fairness, the BBC had attempted to get rid of it, creating a show in which the singers appeared without blackface, but viewers complained, so the BBC actually brought it back. In the same way, there were very few black actors working in the British theatre so rather than not do Othello, or do it white, actors blacked up, presumably justifying it as being something that Shakespeare’s company would have done.

I could just blame my teachers for all this, and to an extent they were to blame. But then, so were we all. My parents, rather progressively for the time and place, brought me up to be colourblind and not judge people by the colour of their skins. Commendable as that was, it also meant that it took me a long time to understand that this carefully inculcated colourblindness also got in the way of my seeing what other people were doing, beyond some vague awareness of the existence of ‘Paki-bashing’. Suffice it to say, we studied Othello in a vacuum and acquired an understanding of the play and its characters that possessed all the finesse of a badly drawn sketch executed in wax crayon.

Which is unfortunate as, I now realise, Othello is an incredibly subtle play, certainly if you accept the story presented in Iqbal Khan’s astonishing production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In this version, almost the least interesting thing about Othello is the colour of his skin. Roderigo may talk about ‘thick lips’, Iago may tell Brabantio that a black ram is tupping his white ewe, but as much as anything, this is about rousing Brabantio’s anger ( as well as possibly knowing which buttons to press). For whatever reason Brabantio may be furious that Desdemona has eloped with Othello (and here, it wouldn’t hurt to think back to The Merchant of Venice, and Shylock’s fury at Jessica’s rather similar elopement), but while there is an awareness throughout that Othello is not from around here, Othello’s tragedy derives primarily not from the colour of his skin but from his extremely complicated relationship with his ensign, Iago. And Iago is really, really pissed off at being passed over for promotion.

Lucian Msamati as Iago

Lucian Msamati as Iago

Reflecting on it, it is very odd how eager my teachers were to pursue the notion of Iago as sociopath (I don’t think we called it that in those days, but it comes to the same thing). Considering how keen they were for the most part to simplify things, in this instance they went for the most complicated explanation they could find, and fumbled it, badly. Yet Iago’s motivation is surely quite plain: it’s there, in the words. Iago has been passed over in favour of Cassio. Iago, the career soldier, has been passed over in favour of the young, dashing but ever-so-slightly clueless Cassio. Why has Iago been passed over? It could be any number of reasons, though in terms of this production, one might guess it’s either something to do with his being a little rough and ready, or else General Othello needs to keep someone sweet by giving Cassio a decent job. In Shakespeare’s theatre, it is very often about who you know, and who you need to know in order to get along.

Khan further emphasises this divide by making his Iago black, his Cassio white. Now that makes it appear to be an overtly racial issue, and to an extent it probably is. But to leave it there would be to offer a very crude interpretation, and Khan’s representation of the situation is so much more nuanced than that. Othello’s soldiers are a multi-ethnic group – and, even putting aside the RSC’s general habit of colourblind-casting, in this instance I think it has to be deliberate – and it is easy to see the situation as one in which Othello needs his trusty man, Iago, to keep the soldiers in order on a day-to-day basis. The production presents Iago as a typically efficient sergeant-major, managing his people well, and that includes this wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant, Cassio, who’s been dropped on him. Iago knows everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, because it’s his job to know, and likewise his job to get all his people home safe, and that includes his officers. Especially, god help him, his officers.

Cassio understands the burden of command but he lacks – let’s call it the ‘common touch’. These are not his people, no matter how much he tries to bond with them. This is made clear in the celebrations after Othello and his soldiers arrive safely in Cyprus, to discover their Turkish enemies have already turned back because of storms. After the formal celebration, Othello and Desdemona retire, while the ranks continue to drink and sing. Iago, knowing Cassio has no head for drink, manoeuvres him into staying, against Cassio’s own best judgement. Here, a tipsy Cassio, it turns out, is a Cassio who tries, with the best will in the world, to join in, but who is incapable of judging the cultural moment.

In the original version, the various gallants sing ye olde drinking songs, but Khan shifts the emphasis. Iago sings, without accompaniment, a song the words of which most of the theatre audience is unlikely to understand, though one suspects most of Iago’s audience does understand. We can read it as a traditional song of his own people. We can make some sort of guess, from the intensity of the performance, that Iago is singing of something painfully close to him. I think it’s significant that we don’t understand; for all we know he may be singing that Cassio is a bastard, and that Iago’s wife is a whore, given these do seem to be his main preoccupations. The point is, we don’t know: all we can do is to take our cue from the manner of the performance, and the response of the onstage audience, and try to read in our own interpretation, as we attempt to fathom Iago’s motivations. And to judge from their response , it’s a lament for something, be it homeland, lost love, lost family.

Unfortunately , Cassio can’t take his cue. He definitely doesn’t know, and in a scene that is truly cringeworthy, he destroys the plaintive mood by crashing in as Mr Bombastic (literally), and trying for something upbeat, with a bit of white man’s rap, during which he articulates a series of views of black men only too familiar to anyone who has had an encounter with racists over the years. He’s challenged by the soldiers, not unnaturally, but keeps on going, apparently oblivious to just how offensive he’s being. It’s a brilliant performance by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd of something that is just so … horrible. You can see in an instant why Othello needs Iago as his ensign, to sort out precisely this sort of mess, but equally, you can see why this mess wouldn’t have happened if Othello had made Iago into his lieutenant. Iago’s spent his life getting everyone home safe, yet this is his reward: to listen to someone insulting the colour of his skin, and the abilities of his soldiers.

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Cassio, David Ajoa as Montano

Which raises other questions. How long has Iago been nursing this resentment? The implication is that Othello and Iago have been partners in soldiering for many years. That Iago is a black man, like Othello, makes perfect sense, because obviously, they started out together, in the ranks, formed a friendship. Othello, the talented strategist, has attracted attention, received honours, and through all this has kept Iago by his side. They’ve grown up, grown old together in the service of others. There is still clearly a warmth between them. They know – they thought they knew – how the other one thinks. So what has gone wrong?

The simplest explanation – and this is a production that seems to be about demystification – is that Othello has become complacent in his success. In the first half of the play we see a man who is clearly very comfortable with who he is and is easy with those around him. He might have had a bad start in life, he might have felt an outcast, or inferior, in the past, but not now. His star is in the ascendant. Everyone – almost everyone – loves him. Even his elopement with Desdemona is accepted when Desdemona is brought before the Duke of Venice and makes it quite plain that this was her own choice.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello, Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona

Hugh Quarshie as Othello, Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona

When I was taught Othello I recall the teacher lingering slightly too long on the idea of Othello’s having bewitched Desdemona: I’d characterise that now as the teacher unashamedly representing Othello as the ‘other’, the magical black man from the dark continent. (Edward Said’s Orientalism wouldn’t be published until a year after I left school.) There is no denying that Desdemona is excited by Othello’s stories – you might wonder if he’d exaggerated for effect, even – but it is clear, I think, that Desdemona has not acted on impulse. Whether she has fully thought through her decision is another matter; what is important is that it is her decision.

And, as with a number of things in this production, it is in fact a simple choice – Roderigo, the noble lord whom her father has rejected, and who is represented as a rather entitled whiner, or Othello, successful, admired, a welcome visitor to her father’s house. Roderigo, who is weak and easily led, as Iago so skilfully shows us, or Othello, handsome, sophisticated, looks good in a uniform. It’s a no-brainer. Although, in fairness to Roderigo, Khan sends him off to war with Iago as a war correspondent, which suggests that we should see some merit in Roderigo as well. While he may blunder through the thick of battle, and demur at the idea of killing someone in cold blood, he’s there nonetheless, and that requires bravery of a sort. You sense that in another version of the play Roderigo might surprise everyone, including himself.

Lucian Msamati as Iago, James Corrigan as Roderigo

Lucian Msamati as Iago, James Corrigan as Roderigo

We might well puzzle over the nature of the relationship between Othello and Iago, but we might as easily puzzle over the relationship between Iago and Roderigo, at least as presented here. Roderigo is Iago’s dupe, or at any rate, his bank – ‘put money in thy purse’ is an acknowledged refrain – but Roderigo trusts him, at least to begin with (as indeed does Cassio), which might prompt us to ask what it is that makes Iago so attractive as a person. I’ve talked about him being good at his job, and he certainly is, but it’s not just that. At least not in this production.

If we take as a norm the idea of Iago as the watchful bystander, alert to every exploitable possibility, then this Iago is very different. I’m sure I’ve said this about another production of Shakespeare recently, but honestly, I had no idea that Othello had the potential to be a funny play. And this production is extremely funny in places. In a way, I wonder why that surprises me. It’s perhaps because there is no obvious Fool present, although there are times when Roderigo and Iago between them take on that role. Many of their early scenes have a certain knockabout flavour and James Corrigan and Lucian Msamati work very well together. (Indeed, I think Corrigan transforms Roderigo from a character who is entitled but rather wet to a character who knows that something is wrong, but can’t quite put a finger on what it is. He’s a dupe, yes, with a flavour of the gap-year student about him, but Corrigan invites us to sympathise, and as a result, Roderigo’s death still comes as a shock for all its inevitability). But Msamati brings something similar to a number of his scenes with Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. There is one scene where the two of them talk while Othello is trying to get his laptop online, with Iago moving around the room, clutching the miniature satellite dish, finally standing on a chair, holding it up like he’s offering a flower to heaven. It’s hilarious because it is so ordinary, and entirely unacknowledged. It’s a neat bit of business that emphasises the previously easy relationship between the two men, before things went so horribly wrong.

Lucian Msamati and Hugh Quarshie

Lucian Msamati and Hugh Quarshie

There is a sense in this production of Iago and Othello being ill-starred twins. They have each played a particular role for many years, and now each of them has forced the other into a situation where enough is enough: unintentional in Othello’s case, for sure, but in Iago’s case, that fine old English saying about what is sauce for the goose s also sauce for the gander comes into play. Which perhaps suggests that Iago’s journey into … I hesitate to call it madness when it seems premeditated. He can clearly and precisely articulate his grievance but the manner in which he assuages his hurt goes far beyond what seems reasonable. Rather than suggesting that Iago is evil, the point surely is that there comes a moment when he is no longer knowable. One thinks of all those people who, we are assured, were perfectly ordinary, quiet, respectable, until the day something finally overwhelmed them… I was taught that it was Othello who snapped when now it seems to me that it was Iago who did so, and took Othello down with him. Which is not to say that Othello didn’t have his own weaknesses – an underlying insecurity about his marriage, perhaps. Why take Desdemona into a war zone, except, of course, that she did insist … But why did she insist?

What of Desdemona? Hitherto, I’ve tended to think of her as one of Shakespeare’s more passive heroines, her main function being to die artistically late in the play. Nothing becomes her quite so much as her dying. Other than that, it’s easy, far too easy, to see her insistence on pressing Cassio’s suit with Othello as simply the result of inexperience. More appropriate, I think, to see her as a young woman, the new wife of General Othello, who goes with him on campaign, and who wants to find a role for herself within the group. Joanna Vanderham gives Desdemona a more abrasive edge than I’d expected, as she struggles to work out her position. But she’s still inexperienced in that she cannot as yet see that General Othello, the soldier, is not the same as General Othello, the courtier whom she knew in Venice, and that she has to be clever and discreet if she is going to make things happen. She’s not stupid, but neither is she wise. If people flatter her – and Cassio is here represented as something of a ladies’ man – she may respond quite innocently, but nonetheless, she’s caught off her guard. She’s also eager to make things right again.

Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona

Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona

And then there’s Othello. The interviews and commentary I’ve read note that in the play there are two Othellos: the proud general of the first half, and the man descending into madness in the second half. As one would expect, Hugh Quarshie has the second Othello nicely pinned down. It’s the Othello of the first half who fascinated me. Whereas my teachers emphasised the exoticism of ‘the Moor’, his misfitting, Quarshie’s performance oozes collegiality. This man is as much at home in the court at Venice as he is on the battlefield. He understands how everything works, he understands his value to everyone. He knows what he can demand of his soldiers, who love him; he knows how far he can push the court. I dare say he’s calculated precisely the likely effect of his marriage to Desdemona. He knows just what he can get away with, if need be. But this doesn’t seem to be a marriage of calculation. Quite the reverse, and perhaps that’s part of the problem for Iago. An uxorious Othello wasn’t what he was expecting. But if an uxorious Othello is a new thing, this also turns out to be his weakness. He’s heading into new territory, uncertain, and its that uncertainty that Iago exploits. Othello may be ruthless on the battlefield (this is made plain in a scene in which a prisoner is tortured, with heavy references to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and when Othello does the same to Iago during a confrontation), but emotionally he’s in no man’s land.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello

Hugh Quarshie as Othello

The great mystery in this production is, I think, Iago’s marriage. It’s really difficult to get any sense of his relationship with Emilia. Ayesha Dharker gives a storming performance, particularly at the end, when Emilia denounces Iago, but until then she has been rather shadowy. I don’t recall the play well enough to know whether her part has been cut at all, but my recollection was that Emilia was if not prominent then more vocal than she is in this production. Here she seems to be a constant observer rather than active participant, even though she is of course the character who pockets that much-vaunted handkerchief and then passes it to Iago, hoping perhaps that he will take more notice of her. And that’s the thing – if Othello and Desdemona have a marriage that is publicly affectionate, the marriage of Emilia and Iago is utterly opaque. One might argue that it is an army marriage, one in which both participants have had to learn self-sufficiency because they are so often apart. But there is, too, a certain prissiness in Iago, not least in the way he turns his back when Othello and Desdemona embrace and kiss. It is meant, I guess, to suggest a delicate recognition of their privacy, or perhaps a reproach concerning their public behaviour. The sergeant-major must perforce be a stickler for protocol, and yet here’s his general … oh, let’s just pretend it really isn’t happening. What he makes of Cassio, who is clearly one for the ladies, though totally unable to deal with the extremely pressing public attentions of his mistress, Bianca, is anyone’s guess, though there is that false description of how Cassio allegedly talked in his sleep and mistook Iago for Desdemona, with bonus homo-eroticism.

Ayesha Dharkar as Emilia, Lucian Msamati as Iago

Ayesha Dharkar as Emilia, Lucian Msamati as Iago

Cassio is of course the last one standing at the end. Although dismissed as Othello’s lieutenant, and then wounded in the fight with Roderigo, he is the one appointed to be governor of Cyprus when Othello and his troops are ordered back to Venice. Would Iago have been appointed governor had he been made lieutenant? Somehow one doubts it. It’s hard to imagine him being able to take up a role similar to Othello’s, and Khan emphasises that point when we see Iago taking charge of the clean-up after the fight in which Cassio is dismissed. Would a governor of Cyprus really be out there with a broom, or scrubbing up spots of blood with his own handkerchief? One doubts it somehow. The point is, perhaps, that Iago is extremely good at his job. Too good, perhaps. Or good because his view is limited. Except, if that is true, he is the one who doesn’t realise that. The one who aspires unreasonably.

There’s more, much more, to be said, but I really need to see this production again, and think about it some more. For example, the RSC has created what it has called a ‘Venice season’, bringing together Othello, The Merchant of Venice and a couple of other plays which, annoyingly, aren’t being livestreamed, so I can’t judge them as a whole series. It would not have occurred to me to think of Merchant and Othello as being related in anything more than name, and yet they are. There are certain similarities of plot – the young woman who steals away, the central character who might be considered to be apart from society’s mainstream, the Venetian setting – but those central characters start from and end in very different places. Shylock is reviled from the beginning: whatever his motive in making the loan to Antonio, we perhaps do not blame him for twisting the situation to exact retribution for Antonio’s many slights; at the end of the play Shylock is forced to become a Christian, to conform, and we can only guess what will happen to him, though it probably won’t be good. He is, if you like, society’s scapegoat. By contrast, Othello starts from a position of strength and power, secure within society, only to be brought down by another man’s personal desire for … revenge is too easy a word. The propriety offended here is not society’s at large, but Iago’s own personal sense of how things should be.

Nadia Albina as the Duke of Venice

Nadia Albina as the Duke of Venice

I’ve already singled out various members of the cast for praise, but honestly, I couldn’t see a bad performance throughout. Most of the cast were in Merchant and that sense of tight ensemble work persists. I should, however, note Nadia Albini’s haughty performance as the Duke of Venice, a far cry from her Nerissa in Merchant, as well as Scarlett Brookes, Jessica in Merchant but unrecognisable here as Bianca. Tim Samuels, whose Launcelot Gobbo I liked so much in Merchant was a magnificently controlled Lodovico, while Brian Protheroe’s Brabantio was an angry man indeed (you can also spot him later doubling up as a drunken Cypriot reveller). Quarshie and Msamati are the stars, of course, but without such strong support from the other actors, this production would be a shadow.

Tim Samuels as Lodovico

Tim Samuels as Lodovico

I like too the way that Iqbal Khan has framed the tragedy against a background that seems modern, ordinary. The rapping contest, I’ve already noted, as well as the military setting, with guns and knives rather than swords. The uniforms are generic, the other costumes couture-contemporary. Characters wash and clean the stage after the fight, a row takes place during a tea party (and a character breaks script for a moment to indicate he’d like two sugars), the Duke of Venice keeps in touch with the battlefield by satellite and laptop. Everyone is carrying files. Lots and lots of files. This is, as much as can be managed on stage, a world, filled with overlapping stories, concerns and needs

It’s good, after all this time, to finally be able to watch Othello and talk about it, but how I wish I’d could have seen this production when I was struggling with the text all those years ago. I wouldn’t dream of calling any production definitive, but for me this Othello is so successful because, while it doesn’t neglect the racial dimension of the story, the shift of focus, to the relationship between the two characters as human beings, opens up new, very productive areas of discussion. It’s a complex, chewy production, and really is the most thought-provoking piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, one of those moments when the RSC is on fire.

(All photos courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website. All copyrights lie with the site/original photographers as appropriate.)

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