Digital theatre review: Othello (2015)
Ivan Radford | On 23, Jul 2020
With the National Theatre At Home run of free plays now drawn to a close with the stunning Amadeus, one could do a lot worse than turn to Othello on BBC iPlayer or BritBox to get one’s digital theatre fix – not least because both productions star the excellent Lucian Msamati. A Game of Thrones and Doctor Who veteran, Msamati dazzled in the National Theatre’s Amadeus as Salieri, a bitter, resentful composer in the shadow of the acclaimed and adored Mozart. In Iqbal Khan’s Othello, he plays Iago with a similar, audience-winning conviction.
His casting is a fascinating step for the RSC, marking the first time the company has cast a black actor as the iconic villain. While that, in itself, is overdue and shouldn’t be a notable decision, it does open up new dynamics in a play that has always had racial tensions running through it.
Here, “noble Moor” Othello (Hugh Quarshie) is the commander of an inter-racial unit, leading them to military victories that still can’t win him the full acceptance of society, especially after he weds Desdemona (the always-excellent Joanna Vanderman) behind the back of her father, Brabantio. From the off, we see how racial tensions are simmering beneath the surface, from Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who joins in with a rap contest as they drink and celebrate victory in Cyprus to Roderigo insulting Othello as having “thick lips”.
Iago, in the latter instance, takes a visible moment to choose to let the remark slide, and it’s that calculation, that need to laugh things off to achieve his plans, that brings a new weight to Iago’s performance – because Iago, perhaps more than any other Shakespeare character, is always performing for others. He plays wise and fair to Roderigo and sympathetic to Cassio, the white soldier who got promoted above Iago by Othello, adding to Iago’s wounded pride.
Msamati perfectly captures all of these dualities in Iago’s ever-shifting persona, crafting a malcontent who is happy to play the joker when all is said and done, laughing at the situation he winds up in, or just laughing at the rest of society around him. Othello, meanwhile, for all his attempts at assimilation, becomes an even more tragic figure, as his pride and anger prove his undoing – a convincing transformation from the world-wise Quarshie, who begins the play as charisma personified, then descends to shocking flashes of torture.
The result breathes fresh new life into one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, while also providing a welcome showcase for Msamati, who has since gone on to impress in Talking Heads, Gangs of London, His Dark Materials and Black Earth Rising – a figure as versatile as this play’s scene-stealing chameleon.
Othello (2015) is available on BBC iPlayer until 1st September 2020. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.