Theater Review: Othello, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

I wasn’t expecting to see Othello last night at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve got tickets to see it in two weeks, but I managed to win two tickets at the last minute, thanks to Beatfreeks, who had a Twitter giveaway. Last night was press night (opening night), probably the most stressful night for the performers. It showed, a bit, as this production of Othello took a bit of time to get off the ground.

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From the first scene with Rodrigo and Iago taunting Brabantio about his daughter, Desdemona, having married Othello, it was clear that this was an inventive production. There was a sort of canal running through the middle of the stage, and Rodrigo and Iago were standing up in a small gondola. (That water, which would be covered at times by metal grilles with arabesque designs, was repeatedly used in the play.) The rest of the stage featured a slightly broken Gothic arch at the back, representing part of a church, and terraces on either side.

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(Photos: Keith Pattison, for the RSC.)

Yet this was a resolutely modern version of Othello. The soldiers are all dressed in modern uniforms, with contemporary weapons. Laptops are seen at times, along with electronic communication equipment. In one poorly considered bit, in the council-chamber scene when all the officers are discussing the military situation, a huge TV screen came down over the stage so one character could report on troop movements. That scene seemed to set a more modern tone than the rest of the play; it is, in fact, the only scene like that, because the play then moves to Cyprus, in a more military environment, where most of the scenery is ammunition crates, oil drums, and weapons.

One of the main talking points of this play is the fact that the RSC cast a black actor, Lucian Msamati, as Iago, which changes the balance of race, one of the main themes of the play. After I few minutes, I forgot all about this, except for the few lines where Othello’s blackness is mentioned. To me, they were all just characters in a play, and the lack of the black-white theme made no difference. (In fact, many of the other soldiers were non-white as well, further erasing that dichotomy.)

Opposite Hugh Quarshie as Othello, Msamati was astounding. He managed to perfectly portray the truculence of Iago, and the complexity of his character. From beginning to the final shot, before the house lights went off, where Iago shakes his head, saying that he will not talk, Msamati was the driving force in this production.

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It’s not that Hugh Quarshie wasn’t good in his role, but, at times, I felt he didn’t go far enough. Through most of the play, Quarshie seemed to inhabit Othello fully, but in the final half hour – when he plans to kill Desdemona, kills her, and then regrets what he did – I found him flat and emotionless. Othello should show anger then remorse, and Quarshie remained strangely distant during those final scenes. This was clearly a choice made by director Iqbal Khan, but I don’t think it worked.

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Joanna Vanderham was very good as Desdemona, but she often seemed to be playing to the audience, rather than to the actors. She had some excellent scenes, and some where she didn’t seem to be fully in her role. And her singing of the Willow song was a bit off-key.

There are a number of scenes with many characters in Othello, notably the one where Cassio – well portrayed by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd – gets drunk, and feels that his reputation is damaged by his escapades. This production had that scene become a sort of freestyle-rap battle between Cassio and Iago, which seemed to be a trivial way to approach it. But the play worked best in the scenes with just two or three characters, where there was much more dramatic tension.

Many of the supporting actors were excellent, notably Ayesha Dharker as Emilia, whose acting in the final scenes was top-notch, and Scarlett Brookes as Bianca.

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The overall staging – aside from the dancing and the TV screen – was excellent, and the lighting very inventive; this was one of the more complex sets I’ve seen at the RSC. I was also sitting in the upper circle, which gave me a very different view of the stage from the stalls, where I usually set. (It just goes to show that the best seats don’t always let you see everything.) This highly visual production will definitely work well on screen; it is to be filmed and broadcast to cinemas on August 26.

The play was long, and felt long. At 2:55, I felt it could have been trimmed a bit. The first part seemed a lot longer than the second, and the last long scene, in Desdemona’s bedchamber (her bed was at the front of the stage), seemed poorly paced.

I’m probably being more critical than I should. I was feeling a bit tired last night, and it took me a while to get into the play. But things felt a bit rickety, unpolished. Actors made a few small flubs, and the timing didn’t always seem right. I have a feeling that I’ll like this play a lot more when I see it again in two weeks, when the actors have had more time to become comfortable with it.

I would really have liked to see Othello express a bit more emotion; in the end, if you look at this play as a battle between Iago and Othello, Iago clearly won in this version. As much as Lucian Msamati played a subtly nuanced Iago, Hugh Quarshie’s Othello felt a bit too shallow. This was a very good production, but it could have been better.