We had seen a remarkable Othello two years ago at the National Theatre, with Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, set in a contemporary military garrison resembling those in Iraq or Afghanistan. We almost decided to skip Othello this time, so as not to overlay our memories of that production.
It’s a good thing we didn’t skip it. This Othello, wonderfully acted in an ensemble mode, proved again the limitless facets in Shakepeare’s enigmatic masterpiece. The revelation here was the relationship between Othello and Iago, brought forward by casting a black actor as Iago. Not just any actor, but the effervescent and charismatic Lucian Msamati, who might have stolen the show away if Hugh Quarshie had not radiated such controlled and thoughtful power.
When Iago is white, Othello is entirely isolated, and it is no surprise to us that Iago plots against him. When he is black, suddenly we see Iago as Othello’s trusted subordinate, someone who stands with him, ready to carry out his wishes and provide him with information. When he is passed over, his loyal service unrecognized, he turns his ingenuity toward revenge. Othello continues to trust him, because Iago is his bridge to a world he only partly understands. Msamati’s Iago, always scheming and arranging, is busy spinning his spider webs, until finally he himself is caught.
Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona deserves mention. There is no trace of victim-hood in her characterization. She is simply a young woman who follows her impulses without guile, and expects that the world will be as straightforward as she. A most refreshing take.