One of things I so admired about Iqbal Khan’s production of Much Ado about Nothing at the Courtyard was his ability to make fundamental decisions which at one stroke get rid of some of the distracting features of a play which tend to dominate inappropriately in a discussion of the play, particularly in the A Level classroom. In Much Ado these were the racial casting and the brilliant setting at an upper class Indian extended family household.
Khan does the same with the Othello which has just opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, only this time there were even more decisions to clarify and interpret the play which took me by surprise. The play is set in a properly multi-racial society. Racism is one issue which can take up countless A Level hours. By making Iago black the simple possible white-black racism problems are thrown onto possible racism about a white Cassio and Brabantio’s possible racist response to the relationship between Othello and his daughter Desdemona. But Khan dispatches these quickly, too. Brabantio misjudges terribly. We believe Othello when he says he seduced Desdemona with his romantically told stories because he appears early on in the play to be charming, soft spoken and lyrical and we don’t believe Brabantio at all when he describes Desdemona because she is not like that at all. Cassio’s problem is that he can’t hold his drink; this is obvious in the party scene. It’s not that he is white.
More A Level hours are often spent discussing Iago’s motivation. Here it is simple and obvious: ‘I hate the Moor’. Why becomes immaterial in this production because Iago hates everyone: Othello, Cassio, Emelia, Roderigo – everyone he has dealings with. He has no affect; he uses everybody to create mayhem. To begin with I found Lucian Msmati’s lack of sibilants irritating until I realised that his speech fits into the pattern of using physical attributes to denote character. It is Iago who lacks sibilants, I decided, not Msmati, just as we see throughout that it is Emelia uncomfortably straight back rather than Ayesha Dharker. Physical traits as metaphors permeate the production.
The third A Level issue which I though Khan dealt brilliantly with was the change that appears to take place in Othello. Othello’s epileptic fit is a psychotic episode when he becomes sadistically and almost uncontrollably violent. There are two Othellos – one the charming and lyrical and the other violent and potentially bloodthirsty. It explains his reputation and also the denouement of the play. I vividly remember Hugh Quarshie’s lyricism in Two Noble Kinsman at The Other Place decades ago; it has not deserted him and was used to create some strikingly underplayed and effective moments here.
These were just some of the ways in which this splendidly intelligent production made me think again about the play and thinking again about a great work of art is what has driven me over the years to see multiple productions of apparently the same text.
The stage movements and stage pictures are splendid. The first half has lots of enjoyable set pieces, beginning with Iago and Roderigo on a gondola in a Venetian canal and culminating in a splendidly rowdy rap party in Cyprus to celebrate Othello’s marriage. Diane Alison-Mitchell’s movement complements Khan’s ideas throughout, physical distances always representing relationships. An example would be the space that Emelia (played by the stunningly beautiful Ayesha Dharker) has around her; she is alone and isolated in her marriage; she remains subservient to Desdemona, often lurking on the sidelines.
This very strong cast expresses interesting things about other characters; too. I have never seen a stronger Desdemona that Joanna Vanderham’s. No shrinking violet, she. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s oversexed Cassio is a delight to watch, expressing a wide range of emotions and moods physically as well as vocally and the initially ebullient Roderigo physically shrinks in James Corrigan’s body as the play proceeds. My only beef was not about the acting but the casting. I am now tired of female Dukes, Princes, Cardinals. Vigorously played as the character was by Nadia Albina, Khan was unable or unwilling to follow through the casting decision into an idea. I thought this by now mannerism of the RSC was silly and detracted from the otherwise highly intelligent treatment of the text.
There is a mass of carefully thought through detail to admire. The whole play is framed by a neo-stone arched entrance upstage which is clearly crumbling with a crack down the middle at the top. The symbolic rose window is already broken and also crumbling. Army costumes create a military background to the whole play. Othello’s use and taking off spectacles while he is being duped by Iago is a beautifully handled extended metaphor as is the metaphorical fruitless search for an Internet signal in the same scene. Â The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary by the use of DIY tools, representing Iago, perhaps, Constantly changing shadows create just the right atmosphere in Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting plot. It is no surprise to discover from the programme that the set and lighting were designed by the same person. The only thing I didn’t really get was the mixture between army costumes, contemporary suits, decorated modern costumes and star trek outfits. Was Fotini Dimou’s costume concept about the past, the present and the future? I didn’t quite get it but I will think about it when I return to see the production again.
I need to say that not everyone I have talked to likes this production. Some thought it dull; others thought it flat. I don’t agree. But then some people don’t like the stylistically very differentÂ The Merchant of VeniceÂ (with many of the same cast) either. I think they are both must-see productions. But interpret the plays afresh. That’s what I want from theatre. Why not come and try to see them both, enjoying a comfortable night or two at Moss Cottage where you will find a warm welcome?