What: Othello by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 11th June 2015
“We’ve tried to make it less ridiculous, so we’ve cut some lines… which leaves us open to the accusation that by doing so we have made it less sublime – we’ve cut some of the music of Othello”.
– Hugh Quashie (Othello) in conversation with the Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald.
It is indeed interesting when the principal actor in a Shakespeare production describes the plotline of one of the Bard’s plays as being ridiculous – so ridiculous that it is worth spoiling the rhythm and rhyme of the play to correct. One might even consider this a kind of arrogance.
In order to do this he quotes George Bernard Shaw. Now I have far less respect for Shaw (a man who justified Stalin’s mass killings) than I have for William Shakespeare so it is fair to say that Mr Quashie’s comments given in advance of press night gave the slightest glimmer of a chance that this production and this reviewer may have got off on the wrong foot before we began.
So much for beginnings. Where were we by the time the actors took their bows at the end of the performance to a strong and full-blooded applause from the full house at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
Why unconvinced? Well, first of all those reasons at the heart of the play that the director (Iqbal Khan) and actors had sought to make look less ridiculous (a matter of a handkerchief and a dream) by the removal of lines still remained at the forefront of the plot whilst other key matters, to understanding this play, were undermined by the casting and no other satisfactory reason for the plot against Othello arose to explain what we were seeing.
The RSC has stated that they are going to stage all Shakespeare’s plays over the next five years. One assumes there is some logic in the way that these are being arranged for public consumption. For example, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 were paired and were outstanding. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing were paired according to some logic of Gregory Doran’s that Much Ado About Nothing might also be the lost play Love’s Labour’s Won. And so on.
So one might guess that in staging the Merchant of Venice and Othello at similar times, there might be an opportunity to exploit core themes with great contemporary relevance. Merchant of Venice speaks about religion. Othello speaks about race. Or does it?
Well, not in this production.
However, it would seem to me self-evident in the original text that Othello is opposed because he is a black outsider.
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago”
Iago to Roderigo, Act 1 Scene 1
“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram, Is tupping your white ewe!”
Iago to Brabantio, Act 1 Scene 1
“These Moors are changeable in their wills”
Iago to Roderigo, Act 1 Scene 3
“I hate the Moor”
Iago to Roderigo, Act 1 Scene 3
This becomes rather difficult in this production of Othello as Iago is played by Lucian Msamati, another black actor.
Now, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Moor” in Shakespeare’s day would have been used generally for any black person but more specifically for a Muslim. Given that Othello here is portrayed as a black Christian, there seems no question that if he was referred to routinely by the general populace as a “Moor” then a black Iago would have been seen in the same way – regardless of his religion or worldview – and would have been equally an outsider.
The principal problem here is that we are not offered any adequate reason to replace this race hatred that would account for Iago’s hatred of Othello. He has been overlooked for promotion as Othello has promoted Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) in his place but there is not sufficient weight placed on this to replace the other matter. Indeed, it would not bear such weight.
But I did say that I was unconvinced, not that the production was without merit. It is not weak in the way that the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merchant of Venice is weak.
The reality is that given the weakened nature of the plot, the majority of the actors do well with what they have been given. Brian Protheroe as Brabantio gives a suitably impassioned performance as the wronged father in the first half of the play.
Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona is good although she sounds occasionally like she has missed the sense of the words she speaks. James Corrigan as the easily-led, slightly witless Roderigo is very good.
Ayesha Dharker is another who is manipulated by Iago but who also is accused of having being unfaithful to him with Othello by her husband. She doesn’t bring a lot of that duplicity to her portrayal of Emilia.
Nadia Albina and Rina Mahoney both seem a little out of their depth here as they did in The Merchant of Venice but again this might have more to do with peculiar casting than anything else.
There are also some scenes which are “ridiculous” and out of place in their own right – a kind of pseudo rap/hip-hop challenge which has Mr Fortune-Lloyd given us a segment of Shaggy’s “Mr Boombastic”; a torture scene which is rootless in the rest of the play; a TV screen which comes down from the ceiling to communicate messages to the female “Duke of Venice”.
Otherwise, the stage set and lighting by Ciaran Bagnall are excellent and make great use of a waterway which appears and disappears in the middle of the stage.
The two principals of Hugh Quashie and Lucian Msamati obviously believe in this production and bring to it passion and vigour which is largely responsible for the audience’s enthusiastic response.
I just wish I could mirror their conviction.