In a continuation of a pioneering project, cinema screens played host to a live screening of the RSC’s 2015 production of ‘Othello’. It was a riveting version of one of Shakespeare’s most contentious pieces that eradicated the issue of race in favour of camaraderie and mental anguish.
In particular, Lucian Msamati’s Iago was something I’d never considered in such a villainous character before: a victim of his own villainy. Indeed, the emotional response to Othello’s torture when demanding the ocular proof, and his obsessive compulsive need to clean and clear after committing one of his many sins made Iago into something previously unconsidered. This was an Iago that wasn’t pure evil, hatred personified etc. This was an Iago with many sides; a betrayed husband, a hurt friend, and as mentioned before, a victim of circumstance and a lie that grew beyond him.
It was interesting that, in cast interviews before the show, Hugh Quarshie (Othello) said of Shakespeare that it isn’t the plays that keep people coming back for more, it’s the stories behind them, and you could tell director Iqbal Khan had taken this stance to heart; that it’s not the events, but the moral and themes behind them that captivate audiences across eras. This was perhaps most obvious in the rap battle – that’s right, a Shakespearean rap battle. Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and the army officer’s rap battle put some of the race contentions back into the play, showing how situations can go from innocent to enraging in a heartbeat – Cassio’s dismissal became less about Iago and more about the responsibilities of role and rank.
My final thought has to be on the casting of a black Iago. Suddenly, a play considered racist became about everything but race, because not only did Iago have no issue with Othello’s background, but he was part of an army that incorporated all races. It was fascinating to have this element taken out; as someone who knows a lot about Shakespeare’s works, it unsteadied my knowledge and made me sit up and pay attention to see how this reinterpretation would pan out for characters and events alike. It meant Othello was mad from jealousy, and not a victim of birth in a foreign land, and Iago felt aggrieved for his inner qualities, and not just for losing position by a foreigner’s hand.
I could mention a lot more – in particular I feel I haven’t done justice to the female leads – but this could go one forever when faced with a play full of delicate intricacies of character, subtle intonations of situations and so on. But once again, the RSC have turned a masterpiece into something more.