A cracked archway sweeps over the stage; there are crumbling porticos, a balcony, and an inlet of water. There is lulling, dreamy music as two figures enter, and climb into a floating bath. It immediately becomes a gondola. Venice is definitely the starting-point for this latest addition to the RSC’s season of plays which, in the words of Gregory Doran, explores “what it means to be an outsider”.
Iqbal Khan’s compellingly fresh production casts at its heart two black actors. Lucian Msamati’s charming, charismatic Iago sets out to destroy Hugh Quarshie’s restrained and anti-heroic Othello out of an inexplicable hatred that cannot easily be categorised as racism. Msamati’s portrayal is upbeat. He seems desperate to be liked, even punctuating Roderigo’s speech to Brabanzio about Desdemona’s elopement with the occasional “boom, boom”.
Iago’s first two profoundly dark soliloquies are strangely softened. One is underscored with a saxophone, the other thrown off centre by party-guests in slow-motion around him. This Iago sets out to beguile the audience, and solicits laughter. Then comes his sudden torturing of a prisoner of war with two other soldiers, using hand-drills and a blow-torch, and we enter an impressive and original change of gear.
Quarshie is not interested in the lyricism of Othello, but rather in presenting how his sudden shift into jealousy releases the bully inside him. Towards the end of the first half he enters to torture Iago and terrify the truth out of him. Everything Iago then says makes him seem all the more believable. The violence Quarshie brings to the role is encapsulated by the hardest and most sudden striking of his wife I have yet seen.
Joanna Vanderham portrays a hedonistic yet vulnerable Desdemona who exudes style and poise, but breaks down entirely for ‘I cannot say “whore”’. Fontini Dimou’s astonishing array of costumes enhance Desdemona’s otherness in Othello’s khaki world. I would like to see her put up even more of a fight for her life in the final scene.
Ayesha Dharker’s still-centred Emilia has been unloved by her husband for too long and has become used to allowing his abuse of others. The ‘willow song’ scene becomes one of solace and playful intimacy. Desdemona dangles her legs in a pool and flicks water at her maid. Scarlett Brookes’ tattooed, warm-hearted Bianca seems to have just left the latest party, lacking sleep. James Corrigan’s Roderigo is appropriately naive, a former public-school boy doing a gap-year in Europe, perhaps, and now caught as the perfect foil for Iago.
Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting design and set become an essential part of the storytelling. During the eavesdropping scene, Othello is cast in wrought-iron shadows under a platform. Rather beautiful – for hell.