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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Othello at the RSC, 8/6/15

Hannah Piercy has just completed her degree in English Literature at Cambridge University. An avid theatre-goer and member of the RSC key scheme, Hannah has written theatre reviews for The Public Reviews, as well as written for and edited the Theatre section of Cambridge’s student newspaper Varsity.

Iqbal Khan’s production of Othello is a delight to watch. To begin a review by commenting on the set might be unusual, but Ciaran Bagnall’s innovative and beautiful design instantly stands out as exceptional. Ciaran Bagnall manages to create both a sparsity and a grandeur appropriate to the physical and emotional qualities of the Venetian setting. There was a visible stir among the audience as Iago (Lucian Msamati) and Roderigo (James Corrigan) stepped onto what appeared to be a rather small, unimpressive gondola, only for the iron grating of the floor to sink several inches, filling with water and bringing the set to life. Ciaran Bagnall’s design is beautiful, with its grand stone arches framing the stage, but it is also flexible and dynamic, and this potential is fully realised by Iqbal Khan’s production. From the Upper Circle, what was particularly impressive was how well Ciaran Bagnall and Iqbal Khan had harnessed the potential beauty the production might have when viewed from above.
Iqbal Khan’s production of Othello is also a delight to watch in a perhaps more surprising sense: it is incredibly funny. Not only Iago and Roderigo’s comic interactions, but Desdemona’s (Joanna Vanderham) witty speeches received peals of laughter. The lively response of the audience matched the liveliness of the performance onstage: a rap battle staged between the Cyprian and Venetian soldiers was particularly memorable, encapsulating the contemporary vivacity the company lend to Shakespeare’s play. Yet, while comic, the rap battle also brought out one of the crucial thematic interests: race.

The decision to cast Lucian Msamati as a black Iago might be expected to diminish Othello’s (Hugh Quarshie) racial isolation, but Iqbal Khan’s production brought this out in other ways. The explicitly racial terms of the rap battle brought the play into vivid proximity with contemporary racial issues. This topical engagement was extended by the emphasis on war. Othello might not be thought of as one of Shakespeare’s most military plays (like, for instance, Coriolanus), but Iqbal Khan thoroughly draws out its potential violence. The inclusion of torture, inflicted first upon a character whose face was hidden, then played out with Othello torturing Iago (another interesting complication to a relationship where Othello is normally the victim), brought a sharp end to the laughter of the first half and made for uncomfortable but powerful viewing. The second half, indeed, developed the tension of the play as both comedy and tragedy: the transition from laughter into psychological disturbance was brought out perfectly by Akintayo Akinbode’s expressive score. Sound is woven into the torture scenes too, as the clicking of a staple gun and the whirring of a drill send shivers down the spine. Iqbal Khan’s production draws out a sense that the horror of the play is not just the corruption of Othello, but the corruption of society in the face of war: a stark and a vital message for today’s audiences to consider.

The subtlety and complexity Iqbal Khan brings to bear upon Othello are fulfilled by wonderful performances throughout the cast. Joanna Vanderham makes an arresting Desdemona: devoted and innocent, yet also witty, lively and strong. Lucian Msamati and Hugh Quarshie were perfect as Iago and Othello, the bond of their shared race complicating the manipulative sway Iago holds over Othello to lend a new dynamic to a pairing well-explored in theatrical history. This version of Othello is simply not to be missed, developing a well-known and well-loved Shakespearean tragedy in a new, sharply contemporary light.

BP £5 tickets are available for Othello. Book your tickets now.

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