Film Posts 23: RSC Live – Othello, Wednesday 26th August (and Blaugust Day 27)

This is going to be the film post, having seen the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello broadcast live into cinemas from Stratford-Upon-Avon last night. This weekend I’ll aim to do a post comparing the experiences of seeing the same production live in the theatre and broadcast.

Othello LiveFor all the Shakespeare I’ve seen over the years, this was my first production of Othello: never seen it on stage or film before. So my expectations had been set by clips of productions, or documentaries featuring actors talking about the play and the characters. And based on those expectations I was underwhelmed.

I felt Hugh Quarshie’s Othello was underpowered. He didn’t dominate the stage, didn’t give me a sense of being the great general and hero of Venice. He gets the chance to show what he got for the time he spent in the gym (impressive six-pack!) but for me it was only in the later scenes where his rage and grief lead to Desdimona’s murder that the performance shone.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in Othello. Photo by Keith Pattison from the RSC website

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in Othello. Photo by Keith Pattison from the RSC website

The big twist in this production was the casting of a black actor, Lucian Msamati, as the scheming Iago. His performance was excellent – good comic interplay with Rodrigo and with the audience, and a powerful physical presence which flits between the “good soldier” and the constant threat of danger: it becomes his play.

But by casting a black actor in the role, Iago’s key motivation of racial hatred towards the successful Othello is taken away – all he’s left with is the frustration and disappointment of being passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio, which doesn’t feel sufficient to justify the extremes to which he’ll go to leave a trail of bodies across the stage. When Iago says repeatedly “I hate the Moor”, the audience’s reaction shouldn’t be “why?” There’s a possible implication of madness or psycopathy, but that’s in the portrayal rather than the words, as if the production is aware of the weakness of the motivation and feels a need to bolster it with a psychological underpinning.

One final point, on the modern-day setting. Prior to the performance, cinemagoers saw a short interview with the Director, Iqbal Khan, where he explained the contemporary setting with references to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but I thought that came across as gratuitous. In a separate filmed set of interviews with actors who had played the role, one described how Othello embodies all noble virtues. But this production has Othello overseeing torture of a hooded prisoner and later himself torturing Iago. Why? This undermines the sense of the “noble Moor”, for no apparent dramatic point beyond the spectacle. And the use of a television monitor to show a report from the front line of the war really felt like “because we can”, an idea that should have been shot down long before it got onto the stage. I’ve no objection to modern-dress Shakespeare – some of the best productions I’ve seen have been modern-dress – but I felt this could have kept it to the costumes and not gone for the props as well.

I may be alone in my reaction. Unusually, I went on my own to the cinema to see this, so didn’t have a companion to bounce opinions off, and the reaction of the people sitting near me seemed a lot more positive. But this is my blog, my opinion, and that’s what I thought.

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