How on earth can Iago be Black? It took generations before Othello himself was played by Black actors and now the idea of a white actor in the role seems antiquated. The charge and potency in the play has always been divided along racial lines even when other complexities are at hand. A Black Iago, on first thought, will only neutralise that racial conflict, making for an emotional flatline.
In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest iteration of Othello, a Black Iago heightened the tension between the two, giving Iago bigger cause for grief having being overlooked for a promotion by the only Black general to whom he had been loyal. These new fault lines do not radically change the dynamic of the play. Rather, we are left to deduce this from the presence of these two actors. And my, what presence they both have.
Hugh Quarshie gives a towering performance as Othello. Compared to the others who have taken on the role in the recent past (Adrian Lester at The National and Eamon Walker at the Globe), Quarshie seemed to have embodied Othello the most on account of his physical attributes alone – short grey hair, chiselled abs, and dignified mannerisms. While Lester and Walker were remarkable, the former always seemed young for a man with such depth of experience and the latter was all fury, as though he was one iambic pentameter away from total meltdown.
In a moment of despair, when Othello realises he has been wrong about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Quarshie intersperses his lines with grunts and mutterings that convincingly emotes deep regret. For a play that has been through countless interpretations, surely it is these subtle variations that renew such a famously tragic downfall.
All of these are offset by the controversial but no doubt clever casting of Lucian Msamati as Iago. Any doubts that this was problematic or just plain wrong were put to rest in the first scene where he and Roderigo hatch their plan to stir Senato Brabantio. Msamati’s portrayal of Iago is so menacing that merely puffing air scares Roderigo in a simple but effectively observed moment. Instead of playing Iago as a big bully, Msamati opts for a lower register: a schemer, a slimy weasel and an undergrowth of mayhem – which he does spectacularly.
A Black Iago is a game-changer especially one at the RSC. It adds a fresh lick of paint on the role and it enlivens conversations around it. It does not alter his motivations in a radical way for this would call for alterations in the script, which is bound to raise even more hell. It is odd that detractors decry the casting of Msamati but will say nothing of Christian Bale as Moses. This seems to me less a case of colour-blind casting than it is colour-enhancing.
This perfect bit of casting is restricted to the two leads. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is too lithe and seems barely out of adolescence especially next to a man with Quarshie’s presence. She looks about the same age as James Corrigan’s Cassio, which fuels Othello’s suspicion of their affair. Both Vanderham and Corrigan often look as though they are in a different Shakespearean drama, perhaps the one about about star-crossed lovers.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd does a much better job as the cowardly and love-struck Roderigo, while Ayesha Dharkar’s Emilia – whose presence on stage alone adds to the richness of the casting – could have benefitted from more zest. Iqbal Khan’s direction is a thoughtful balancing act. His is a world in which swords and sheaths coexist with pistols, incorporating the spirit of the original text and that of the present in which it is set.
The production is a triumph in Stratford-upon-Avon and should go down like a storm if it transfers to London where there is an army of Shakespeare faithfuls and a host of Black and Asian communities who may not feel they are a part of the fabric of the RSC. I have never seen on stage a more electrifying tag team than Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati. These two alone were worth the five hour trip from London to the birthplace of the English playwright.
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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. Follow him on Twitter @sabo_kpade
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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