Interview with Lucian Msamati, the first Black Iago at the Royal Shakespeare Company

by Sabo Kpade

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

One thing that tends to never change in past iterations of Othello are the central roles: Othello, the Black or “blackened” flawed general, and Iago, the scheming and racist subordinate. These characters have always been left intact, for their different races and ranks contribute to the strongest charge around which the entire play reverberates. This changes in Lucian Msamati’s forthcoming role at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), where he becomes the first Iago to be played by a black actor at the company.

Changing the racial dynamics of this central relationship will introduce an entirely new perspective on this 400-year-old text. Making Iago Black could neutralise the most obvious threat of racism that he poses to Othello, but lacking that aspect could heighten tension between them if the wronged Iago has been refused promotion by a fellow Black man in a world that is ostensibly white. It remains to be seen what other changes have been made by the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran and Director Iqbal Khan in what will surely be one of the most talked about productions of the summer.

Along with a clutch of film appearances, Msamati’s most notable television roles are in The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Game of Thrones. He has also left his mark in a series of famed productions: Death and the King’s Horseman and The Amen Corner, both at the National Theatre, The Overwhelming at the Tricycle Theatre, Ruined at the Almeida and Clyborne Park at the Royal Court Theatre. I sat down with him to discuss his role as the first black Iago at the company’s rehearsal space in Clapham, London, before Othello hits the stage on June 4, 2015.

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

SK: So Lucian, why a Black Iago?

LM: Well, it’s a very interesting question, a very reasonable provocation, I think. We did a workshop to explore ideas this summer. It was just about getting actors into a room to see if this will work as a play. And at the end of that workshop week, we said these plays are 400 and something years old. It’s absolutely right that, in the modern context, in the world and the society that we’re in that we should tackle them afresh. We should tackle them with rigour, and with the wealth of nations that we have in our talent.

I think the most valuable thing for me was that within a matter of minutes [at] the workshop, it was absolutely clear to everybody that this was going to work. It is not an issue at all… And in actual fact, it addresses the character of Iago in a very different way, I think. Because suddenly, it heightens – for me anyway – the sense of betrayal. The sense of broken trust, the sense that you and I – as [Iago] says right at the beginning to Roderigo – we have fought in Rhodes, in Cyprus, on others’ grounds, Christian and heathen, we’ve seen war together, you and I, we are brothers. We’ve done it all together. But you went and chose that guy over me. When the tradition is – he goes on to say to Roderigo – the old tradition was that every second stands heir to the first. If you are the lieutenant, when the general passes over, you automatically take position. But this guy, what does he do? He takes the modern route, he disregards the entire system that has been in place.

Regardless of whether Othello’s decision is right or not, it’s the fact that Iago… feels betrayed by that. And that is something which I find has been very, very interesting and challenging as we go through this. Because the other interesting thing – jumping the gun a little bit – is that on the most basic level, whenever you talk about Othello, people immediately have associations of a racist play… And Iago is this great, big, bad, scheming racist, et cetera… He is not the first person in the play to use racism, he is not the first character. That struck me as very interesting.

SK: Do you think this betrayal is his chief motive?

LM: I wouldn’t say it is his chief motive but it is his first accusation. As we discover, there are several others. We now unpick that Iago now thinks that Othello has done something with his wife. And the more you unpick it, the more you realise that there is something fundamentally broken about him.

SK: He’s broken as a husband, too…

LM: As a husband, as a man. He’s not well, you know, he’s got problems, he needs to sit down, and talk… to someone.

SK: Do you agree with the belief that what Iago has is a motiveless malignancy or a motiveless motive which, to me, is very much like the snake eats its own tail?

LM: I completely disagree with that because it’s not motiveless. He’s been betrayed by his best friend. And I’m [Iago] going to get my revenge because of that. And then, whilst we’re on the subject, I have this feeling, somewhere in me, that he’s [Othello] done this with my wife. It’s not motiveless, there’s plenty of motive in him. I think the challenge is that it is all very easy for Iago, actually, the way things unfold. Everything falls just about right for him. Coincidentally, the handkerchief happens to be there. Just as he’s about to be cornered, Bianca appears with the handkerchief. He can sit back and go: “Dance, puppets; dance, puppets”. Which, dramatically, on stage, I don’t think it works. What this guy is doing is dangerous, he’s playing a very dangerous game. And at certain points, he’s faced with the morality of what he’s doing.

SK: Have you seen previous productions of the play?

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

LM: You know what, funnily enough, Othello is not my favourite Shakespeare, it never has been… I don’t have anything against it. But I suppose there was something that I did resent and it is that the height of my achievement, or my ability as a “Black actor” should be to play Othello. No [laughing]. What about King Lear, what about Julius [laughing]! You know. Why is the zenith for me to play Othello?

SK: A simplified reading of the play is that it is about a lowly, racist white man trying to bring down a noble Black man who is his superior. Now a Black Iago may be a fresh idea but it will also import the already established notion of the Black man trying to bring down the Black man. Don’t you think so?

LM: Absolutely. It’s not a new idea at all… But I do think that in the society in which we live it is almost as if, because of the colour of your skin, or because of the cultural currency or space you occupy, within the collective imagination, it means that you do not exist outside of those parameters, that you are not psychologically complex or interesting. In fact, you are either super-human or sub-human; you’re not human. Here is Sabo and Lucian, two Black men from completely different parts of the African continent with completely different cultural references. Yes, of course there are similarities, but they’re very different. And within those differences, there are sub-differences, and sub-differences – that’s humanity.

SK: Of all the interpretations of Iago you have seen, are there any that stood out for you?

LM: Well, Rory Kinnear because he is a colleague, a friend, and I really enjoy him as an actor. I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh, his ease and his wit, he’s fantastic. Those ones, they stand out for me.

SK: I think I get a sense of what you want to bring to this one, but are there any qualities that you haven’t seen in other interpretations of the role and would like to bring to your performance?

LM: I couldn’t answer that. You’ll have to be the judge on that. We are working, we are building, we are grafting, we are applying the same rigour and excitement to the craft as we do with everything. I can’t judge myself, I’m not so objective in that instant.

SK: Are you going back to directing?

LM: Well it all depends, you know. At the moment, I’m enjoying being just an actor again. I’m enjoying the relative freedom of not having to run a company anymore.

SK: Do you wonder how this show will be received and what kind of reviews it will get?

LM: Do you know what’s interesting? I stopped reading reviews of things that I did about six years ago.

SK: Was it after a performance?

LM: Yes, it was after my first RSC debut actually, I was playing Pericles. After the press night performance, giddily excited, I went down to an internet cafe in Stratford-upon-Avon and… looked at reviews. The first one that I came across was so scathing about me. I remember walking out of the internet cafe choked up. I really thought: “I should have never have done this, now I’ve made a fool of myself”. And I remember standing on the pavement pissed off and I was like: “Fuck them, I’ll show them.” To go back a little bit, I think it was the culmination of a process that had been happening anyway over the previous few years… I started to build a frustration over a lack of validation, which is very bizarre. Whilst not seeing that, actually, the fact that you keep working is the biggest validation of all [laughing]. You’re still working and you’re working with top quality people. That’s the validation!

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

Lucian Msamati by David Kwaw Mensah

SK: Your performances in King’s Horseman, Amen Corner and Clybourne Park have been exceptional. Don’t you think you’ve stopped reading these reviews at the wrong time?

LM: The best review you can get is when someone stops you randomly in the street and says: “Excuse me, you don’t know who I am, but I’ve seen you in da, da, da, and I loved what you did”. That is gold dust. And also, I know myself. I know the things that this mad head and heart are. I know that I need to keep myself disciplined and focused and hungry. And the best way to do that is to shut out the noise of the world, be it good or bad, and continue to improve your craft. To continue to go with open eyes, with humility, with strength, with your antennae out, but to constantly improve. And I don’t think you can constantly improve, personally, if you get sucked into the hype.

SK: So who do you listen to? Your director?

LM: Well, there is a clutch of very, very, dear, trusted friends and colleagues, who will never lie to me, ever, ever, ever. Their opinions, I value and trust. Because the other thing is that – in the course of that other process – you know, I don’t know if you’re expecting this particular play to be five stars, because you’ve been working on it. And you know where the problem areas are. So you can pretty much write a review of it yourself. Because you know that there’s a problem there, and a problem there, in that scene. You have those instincts, you have that insight. Don’t shut off those critical faculties. But at the same time, don’t let them overwhelm you, to the point where you are unable to just dive in. Because there does come a point where you have to go: “You know what, this is the work we’re doing. Let’s go for it”.

SK: And do you think your work has improved since those six or seven years when you got that scathing review?

LM: Yes. And I think that’s also just, perhaps, getting older, wiser… Also, it’s the joy of not taking yourself too seriously. Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

SK: Lastly, what will be a fitting punishment for Iago? I personally don’t feel he got what he deserved even though Mr Othello, in his twisted logic, prefers for him to live and see the results of his actions. Rather than kill himself, he should have killed Iago first.

LM: That’s a very interesting provocation. I don’t know the answer, to be honest. I do think, my instinctive reaction is that, death is too easy a punishment for Iago, it’s too easy. Because he’s expecting it. What he’s not expecting is to have the world go, “You see this, you see what you did”. This guy is a soldier, he deals in death every day, that’s what he does. So death is not scary to him. He’s not actually afraid of dying. He’s afraid of living [laughing]. He can’t love his own wife. He melts down like a lovesick teenager at being betrayed, and does all this stuff. This is not someone who loves life terribly, you know.

For more information about the play click here

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. His story Chibok has been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. You can find him on Twitter at @Sabo_Kpade

Photographs by David Kwaw Mensah

This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Arts and Culture editor Tara John. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact Tara@mediadiversified.org

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1 reply

  1. It’s always fascinating to see what different actors make of Iago and of how much of his self-justifications are true. There’s more than a trace of self-hatred as well as betrayal in Iago, as Msamati describes him; while I have the feeling other actors have played Iago as self-hating before, this would be a new level of self-hatred – and if that’s how they’re doing this, maybe I could get on board, because the question of self-hatred as a minority raises questions of what it is you find most repellent in others (especially others from your own community, however you construe that) and why.

    I’m interested, too, in Msamati’s semi-vindication of, or at least empathy for, Iago’s motives. Obviously as an actor he has to have some degree of empathy for the character in order for inhabitation of that character to be successful, but are Iago’s actions really just a question of personal betrayal and the fallout from it? (The bit about his wife is one of several explanations he gives for his hatred of Othello. While technically they all could be true – they don’t directly contradict each other – they put me in mind of the Joker’s multiple origin stories in Mad Love, to bring this back down to the level at which I usually operate.)

    And then there’s the question of how much of their own psyche an actor sees in the characters they play. When I was studying Othello at university, I kept abbreviating all of the characters’ names by their first letters in my notes – so Iago became ‘I’. A black Iago playing opposite Othello (also black) adds a new dimension to that question: is Iago in some way an ‘I’, either personal or collective, or both? If the answer is yes, how do you deal with that? Can it ever be expunged?

    Like

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