Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Iqbal Khan
‘Men are men, the best sometimes forget’; Productions of Othello tend to focus primarily on notions of jealousy and race, exploring whether marital and political betrayal drive the plot, or if outsider status delineated by the titular character’s race and religious conversion create the conditions of his downfall. But in 2015, for the first time in its history, the Royal Shakespeare Company cast a black actor to play the role of Iago and devised a modern, multi-ethnic society around him where reputational loss was worth dying for.
Streaming as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series and available on the iPlayer for three months, this contemporary Othello directed by Iqbal Khan is deliberately a place in which old and new worlds collide. It opens on the streets of Venice which transforms the thrust stage into a boat-filled waterway complete with ancient architecture against which the men in modern combat dress form a stark contrast.
Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting design is thing of beauty on screen, seamlessly merging the visual appeal of the classical world in the Italian scenes with the Middle Eastern-inspired lattice work, prints and tiling of the Cypriot base. Khan’s production is allowed to flow seamlessly as Bagnall has tables rise from the stage and creates plenty of dark corners in which skulduggery occurs, yet the contrasting trappings of modern combat equipment prevents the vision from becoming too cosy.
The setting may have a faded period charm, but cosy is the last thing Iqbal has in mind, introducing a fierce brutality in his characters and their behaviour that explains much of the plot. This is a place in which extremes of violence are normal and expected, so graphic scenes of torture recur on which the camera lingers with disconcerting fascination, including some interesting aerial and tracking shots that create intensity. Not only, then, do we understand that this is warfare at its most unforgiving, but, crucially, that Othello is a man given to aggressive behaviours.
A scene in which he uses a hammer and pliers on Iago before attempting to suffocate his captive is gruesome but psychologically pertinent. This Othello happily uses whatever punishments necessary to ensure loyalty from his own soldiers, even causing them physical harm. Not only does the viewer understand Iago’s deepening resentment of his superior officer, but Othello’s decision to throttle Desdemona makes even more sense for a man who uses physical castigation and the infliction of his own brand of military justice to coerce and control other areas of his life.
With a diverse cast, use of multicultural music and examples of mixed marriages across the base, Khan drives the issue of race underground, hinting that below the surface of this open society darker forces lurk. The choice is an interesting one, although it defuses Othello’s outsider status to a degree, replacing it with a structure in which men are destroyers of innocence and Iago is largely motivated by resentment.
Lucian Msamati’s Iago is a master manipulator with festering resentments that always seem an inch away from violent eruption. Unable to physically attack his superior officer, this Iago absorbs all the indignities of his junior role while tightly controlling those around him. But Msamati also suggests a frightening mercilessness, almost a madness that has as little regard for his own wife’s tender feelings as for the various men he sets out to destroy.
The audience cannot sympathise with this Othello either; he may be maliciously deceived, but Hugh Quarshie positions him as a brutal and cruel man. The fear he inspires in Iago during the torture scene is captured particularly well by the camera work here, while the close-ups of Quarshie when Othello first learns of his wife’s betrayal are full of the scene’s fascinating subtext as he scans both the faces of Iago and later Desdemona searching for truth.
With a running time of three hours, this is a long production which only really picks up the pace in the second half, but Khan gives his actors and the story plenty of room to breathe with moments of stillness to reflect as well as scenes of revelry that add to the wider cultural context. In playing with our preconceptions of the leading roles and foregrounding the consequences of reputational damage, this filmed production shows us that Shakespeare’s story still has many different faces to offer.
Streaming here until August 2020