Review: Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago. - Credit: Archant

Intense, questioning and full of surprises – Game of Thrones star Lucian Msamati makes RSC history as the first black actor to play Iago in its gripping production of Othello

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona. - Credit: Archant

Mobile phones, laptops and live-feed battle reports are not what you’d expect from Shakespeare, but this is no ordinary production. Beneath the towering church structure of Ciaran Bagnall’s striking set is a world under surveillance – punctuated by scenes of torture that knit the play’s themes to real-world concerns.

Lucian Msamati, whom Game of Thrones fans will recognise as pirate Salladhor Saan, becomes the first black actor in the RSC’s history to play Iago. With a tremendous presence on stage, he is the star of the show. Initially funny and revelling in villainy, he manipulates the crowd as easily as he does the characters.

Hot on the heels of the Merchant of Venice, the second production of the RSC’s ‘Venice Season’ is one of Shakespeare’s most evocative tragedies. Iqbal Khan, whose last production for the RSC was an acclaimed Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, directs the modern dress production of Othello. The play begins with a boat, water gently lapping at its sides amongst the misty surroundings of a Venetian canal, but this is where any sense of serenity ends – gender and identity are flipped and expectations challenged over the course of the three-hour production.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona. - Credit: Archant

From the opening scene between Roderigo and Iago, it becomes clear that the play will interrogate racial stereotypes. Under Khan’s direction, the perspective shifts to the personal – Iago’s persecution of Othello appears based on an intrinsic jealousy and nihilistic desire for destruction. When his pivotal soliloquy of the first act is performed – lights down, on the bare stage – the entertainment gathers the potential to slide swiftly into horror.

Following roles in Star Wars and Holby City, Hugh Quarshie returns to the RSC after almost a decade to perform the play’s title role. Authoritative, passionate and proud, he may be smitten with Desdemona, but as his sanctioning of torture shows, this anti-heroic Othello is inherently flawed before Iago ignites his jealously. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is confident, beautiful and arresting – assuredly devoted and full of desire for Quarshie’s muscular Othello. Yet Khan’s direction here poses a pertinent question: does a woman’s sexual confidence make her an easy target for charges of unfaithfulness?

Overall, the cast is rich in great performances, from James Corrigan’s preppy, highly-amusing Roderigo to Nadia Albina’s Duke – power dressed in metallic tailoring with killer flatforms. And for anyone that cringes at poorly-read social situations and thinly-veiled prejudice, prepare to squirm as Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Cassio attempts to spit rhymes and beatbox in an MC battle with Montana, played by David Ajao.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago. - Credit: Archant

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The RSC want to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy, and the modern revisions of this season – fusing the bard’s penetrating social observations with the delivery of a hugely entertaining production – is certainly the way to do it. Whatever you think you know about Othello, get down to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and prepare to have it challenged!

Catch Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 28 August 2015. For more information and tickets visit www.rsc.org.uk

Can’t make it to a performance? Othello will be broadcast live to cinemas on 26 August 2015.

Words: Daisy McCorgray

Images: Keith Pattison