The play may be called Othello, but iconic villain Iago is by far the bigger role, and needs a great actor to carry it off. The RSC certainly picked such an actor in Lucian Msamati, who is also the first black actor to play the role in an RSC production.
The story of the play is one of manipulation, jealousy and murder – Othello is happily married to Desdemona, but Iago, furious that renowned soldier Othello has chosen the younger Cassio for promotion to lieutenant over Iago himself, hatches a plot to rid himself of his rival. He sows seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity in Othello’s mind, insinuating that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Unfortunately, the consequences of his plans are far reaching and horrific when Othello becomes so overcome with fury that he kills his wife, and then kills himself when he learns that Desdemona was true to him all along.
Hugh Quarshie was ideally cast as the titular character – his good looks and charisma make it easy to see why his young wife has fallen in love with him, and make his subsequent breakdown all the more shocking. However, earlier scenes of him tacitly endorsing waterboarding a prisoner of war suggest that he was never as benevolent as he initially appeared. Msamati also fits perfectly into the part of the villain of the piece – he’s funny and clever, but his scheming is never far below the surface – for the audience at least, if not for his fellow characters. In this production, more than some others, Iago actually is – at times – a fairly sympathetic character. It is easy to understand his dislike of Cassio, and his real belief that he has been passed over for a promotion that was rightfully his. Joanna Vanderham was also excellent as Desdemona, combining a visual fragility with heart and pluck.
The production is modern – to an extent. Laptops, mobile phones and computers are all used, and this may not please some of the audience – a couple behind me said that they would have preferred a traditional performance. However, I personally liked that aspect, as it is a reminder that Shakespeare is as relevant to modern audiences as to those of his lifetime.
The action is gripping, and there are no dull moments – strong performances all round and genuine tension on stage make this a highly recommended production of a classic play.
(Click here for more information about this production, or the Royal Shakespeare Company.)