After the hustle and bustle of term time, and having been spared direct impact from the disease, I had a markedly quiet lockdown. It was a reversal to a simpler time, with fewer options, fewer pressures and much less to do. At first, this change of pace was restful: finally, there was opportunity for all those little things that we never have the time to do. But gradually the days snuck away, leaving weeks to take their place. Soon long walks around the neighbourhood proved an insufficient escape. However, it was on one such venture into the unknown reaches of my local area that I came across an advertisement for the RSC’s Othello, broadcast on the BBC. Surely this would take me away – for three hours, at least?
Iqbal Khan’s Othello did not fail. The stage was creatively designed, with its canal transporting the viewer directly to a Venetian scene, adorned with ancient, churchly arches: an ideal space for contemplation. The era was not clear, with Roderigo and Cassio donning present-day clothing, while other characters were timeless in their dress. Dressed identically to Othello in a maroon jacket, Brabantio introduces the theme of race with his initial fury at the former’s secret marriage to his daughter. The matching dress reflects the similar roles of the men by whom Desdemona is both controlled and failed at different points in her life. Khan’s use of technology and social commentary reinforces Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern audience, although the video call which brought news to the Duke served as an unintentional (but nonetheless cruel) reminder of our current situation.
The stunning set was matched by the high calibre of acting, with fantastic performances across the board. Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and Iago (Lucian Msamati) were both exceptional. Khan’s Othello was far from the “noble Moor” in this production, using Abu Ghraib-style torture techniques in order to interrogate and extract information from a terrified Iago. The casting of Msamati as Iago – the first time a black actor has played the part in an RSC production – was extremely refreshing. In a particularly touching moment, Msamati’s Iago showed an unexpected vulnerability by breaking out into traditional song, moving his battle-hardened exterior almost to the point of tears. Meanwhile Cassio stood out in this scene for the wrong reasons, demeaning Iago whilst all others listened in respectful silence.
Msamati’s casting naturally leads to an interesting alternative interpretation of race in the play, which has variable success. I was unsure how to view Iago’s racist slurs against Othello, and what commentary Khan was trying to make with his disruption of the racial binary, as the blurring of the lines arguably made the themes more difficult to understand. Yet other scenes, such as the rap battle between Montano and Cassio, provided a clever yet uncomfortable commentary on contemporary issues of race in an exciting fashion which surely goes some way to opening up Shakespeare to a younger audience.
The benefit of Othello being on iPlayer is that if – like me – you are unfamiliar with Shakespearean language and find it difficult to follow at times, it can be watched with multiple intervals! This was an excellent production, with the scenes of escalating drama and tension between Othello and Iago proving particularly gripping. Lockdown or not, I would recommend this to anyone as a way of experiencing Shakespeare, and its inclusion on the BBC makes the sometimes elitist and exclusive space of the theatre far more accessible to all.