Othello at the RSC? It was always going to be an excellent production. But I don’t think I was quite prepared for just how impressive it would be.
This is the first time I have seen Othello, though, inspired by Grace Petrie’s Iago, I have read the play before, so I was most excited by the chance to finally see it. Especially when it included £5 tickets through the RSC Key scheme (16-25 year olds, go check it out).
The thing which first jumps out at you, from the opening ‘Tush never tell me’ is that in this production Iago is played by a black actor, Lucian Msamati (the first such casting in RSC history). Much of the play focuses on the ‘Moorish’ ethnicity of Othello, someone who is naturally an outsider, and struggles to fit into Venetian society because of this. When Othello marries Desdemona in secret, her father Brabantio cannot believe that Desdemona should ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/ Of such a thing as [Othello]’. That she should betray her father out of love for a Moor is to him so inconceivable that he accuses Othello of Witchcraft. Indeed, throughout the earlier scenes in Venice, Othello’s ethnicity is repeatedly used as a basis for abuse and insult. And Iago is among the worst of the abusers. Put simply, Iago repeatedly states ‘I hate the Moor’ – he is not deserving even of a name. He is a ‘Barbary horse’, a ‘black ram’, a ‘devil’.
Of course, the basis for Iago’s hatred of Othello is not racial bias, it is jealousy of success, and feelings of misuse because Othello has promoted Cassio above him. The casting of Iago as black alongside Othello therefore does very interesting things for the dynamic of the whole play.
First, both Othello and Iago can be seen as trying to be something they are not. Othello wants to fit in with the Venetian elite – he marries the daughter of a Senator, he even dresses similarly (both Othello and Brabantio have rich purple coats in the opening Venetian scenes of the RSC production). Likewise, Iago wants the success of the white Cassio. Othello should naturally share the position of Iago as an outsider in Venetian society – they should be united by their otherness. But instead, Iago, the black officer, is passed over for Cassio, the white junior. Othello acts as the Venetians would, in an attempt to match their standards. Yet neither Iago nor Othello can hide what they are forever. From the start there are some in the upper ranks of Venice who see Othello as different despite his rich rich dress. Instead, they see him as inferior, sub-textually linking him to Iago in his appearance, and therefore linking the hero of the piece to the villain.
As the play progresses, this link between Othello and Iago becomes more pronounced, spreading beyond appearance. First his dress changes to that of a military man, then, slowly he embraces the whispers of Iago – that Desdemona is unfaithful to him, that she and Cassio have become lovers.
The Grace petrie song I mentioned before, Iago, presents the view that Iago is the voice in your head, leading you astray – that Iago is part of who you are. By extension in the play, Othello and Iago can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Their shared appearance, rather than masking differences, is simply an illustration of deeper similarity. This is made explicit by two very powerful scenes. In the first, after the victory of the Venetians over the Turks at Cyprus, Iago is seen leading the torture of a captive. This has no major relevance to the plot, but provides an insight into the character, serving to balance his ‘public’ persona as a trustworthy, sometimes comic character (brought out in the directing of the performance). It is as though the public face of Iago (which hypocritically mocks Othello for his Moorish descent, and seeks to win the crowd over with his comic ways) is drawn back to reveal his true nature. Later, when Othello becomes convinced (falsely) of Desdemona’s infidelity, he proceeds to take out his anger on Iago, mirroring the earlier torture.
Despite the best efforts of Othello to fit into Venetian Society, he cannot hide his true nature. By the end of the play, Othello has murdered Desdemona, and Iago has done the same to his wife Emilia, as well as to Rodrigo. The two characters can be seen as parts of a whole. Iago is the voice in Othello’s head leading him to doubt, who lives only to see the world burn. In the final scene, with Othello, Desdemona, Emila and Rodrigo dead, Iago is held in captivity, his fate to be decided by Cassio, the very man who’s promotion Iago so resented. Iago has wrought destruction and chaos, but has gained nothing for his trouble. As the play ends, he is held in chains, on his knees, laughing. It is not Othello who is a Devil, but Iago.