Casting a black actor to play Iago in a production of Othello, as Iqbal Khan does in this 2015 production for the RSC, is not a particularly controversial move but it is risk nonetheless. The whole relationship between Iago and Othello is a complicated one and there are many other interesting ways to explore the motivations behind Iago's hatred for the Moor that drives him to such extreme actions, but it does seem like a risk to immediately take racial hatred out of the equation. You would need to find something else capable of rousing such strong emotions and find actors capable of making it work, and fortunately in both respects, Khan's RSC production makes a convincing case for looking outside the race issues in Othello.
There's certainly an element of racism in the play involving Iago, most notably in the first scene when he and Roderigo mischievously/malevolently use distasteful slurs to set the Moor's protector Brabantio against him. It's more a matter of cunning on Iago's part, and as Brabantio is quick to seize on spells and witchcraft to account for his daughter marrying a black man, he's astute in his judgements about human nature. As we well know. But it's a conscious scheme, played upon for this very reason by Iago and arguably it doesn't come from any prejudice on the part of Iago himself. Admittedly that's easier to see when you cast a black man as Iago, but the validity of this view is borne out by subsequent actions.
If you're going to discount even an element of racism being behind Iago's hatred for Othello, what other reasons does the General's ensign have to go to such lengths to so utterly destroy a person in the way that he does? There are surely better ways to get one's own back for being passed over for promotion. Why not be content with discrediting Michael Cassio, the person promoted above him? Why go so far as to drive "the noble Moor" to destroy his own reputation, one that has been hard one in overcoming prejudice, a man who even Iago recognises as a valuable comrade in arms? And why see Desdemona also tortured in the process, knowingly setting events onto a course that will lead to her murder? Misogyny? Pure evil? Those are not reason enough.
Nor is it pride and reputation, although it also has a part to play. There's no doubt that Iago is stung by the rumours that Othello has done his office 'twist his sheets with his wife Emilia, even though he suspects there is no truth to them. So little does he care for his wife or love however, "It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will", that it is hard to see him killing for it. The bruising to his reputation however is no small matter, much as he might deny it, and it's also important to Othello. How often do we hear the the terms "Honest Iago" and "Noble Moor" used in Othello? If these epithets mean so much to the men, why do they practically go out of their way to prove that they are unworthy of them? Jealousy "the green-eyed monster" is a good dramatic device, but it's not motivation enough for such a turnaround in character. No, there's more to it than that and Iqbal Khan hits on it with great precision, highlighting the military nature in both men.
It's life in the army that has led both men to be suspicious of women, or at least not to trust themselves with women. They must always be on their guard, and if there is any area of weakness that could destroy their reputation as soldiers, that's in their behaviour with women. Iago, in this production, can't disguise his contempt for how Othello behaves with Desdemona when they first appear in public together and share a moment of affection. He feels betrayed that a brother in arms can let his guard down in this way and seems to want to punish him for it. The reason why he takes that punishment to such extremes is likewise tied into his occupation. He's a soldier and he's used to using extreme violence to get answers and resolve situations. As is Othello, who even threatens Iago with a beating and torture in his attempt to get the truth out of him. Othello's reaction then, when he believes he has been betrayed by his wife, is always going to be extreme.
Violence is a part of Iago and Othello's lives and the RSC production fairly seethes with its presence always just beneath the surface, and not just in the expected places like the bar room brawl that sees Cassio spoil his good name (military reputation again). The director further plays on it in this scene using a more modern way to highlight the macho bravado and alcohol-fuelled testosterone competitiveness by having Cassio take part in rap battle in this production. It's effective if a little disconcerting - particularly when Cassio beat-boxes and breaks into "Mister Boombastic" on the mic. But all the while there's a threat of violence in each scene, an undercurrent with barbs that spike whenever a woman appears on the scene, bringing out the worst in these men. It's a keen observation, the presence of violence in this military world one that carries with it a very real edge of danger, and it makes what is to inevitably follow very painful to see played out.
What makes the execution of this idea so successful is of course the attention given to the characterisation and the conviction of the actors in the principal roles. Chiefly, credit has to be given to Lucian Msamati for making Iago such a dangerous figure under these terms. It helps that he is characterised as being almost obsessive-compulsive, meticulously planning, brushing and cleaning floors - even in how he addresses his thoughts out loud to the audience. There's a military mind at work here, precise, calculating and meticulous - demanding of others as much as of himself. The highest compliment that you can pay any Shakespearean actor is that he or she can make you understand what the words mean even if you don't understand the meaning of the words themselves, and Msamati's every gesture is expressive and full of the character of the nature that drives Iago.
Hugh Quarshie is a brilliant Othello to set against Msamati's Iago. He is no weak man that it destroyed by Iago, or even one who lets jealousy somehow overpower the supposed better nature of the "noble Moor". He's strong and you very clearly get the sense that he could take Iago apart when they face up to each other. He is manipulated however into turning this strength upon himself, and it's the strength of his love that ultimately destroys him. This would not work quite as well were both men seen to be overpowering weak women, and Joanna Vanderham and Ayesha Dharker are anything but weak and compliant. There's a superb balance maintained here all towards a firm sense of purpose, but the director is mindful of the wealth of characterisation and variety of tones in the work, with James Corrigan a wonderfully funny-pathetic Roderigo, making the text brim with life and wit to go alongside the darker truth in Shakespeare's observations.
The RSC's 2015 Othello is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The Blu-ray is BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcasts is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.
As with the previous releases of the RSC's productions, the quality of the High Definition transfer is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release of Othello. The HD transfer handles the variable lighting conditions well, the image always looking clear even in darker scenes and under high contrast lighting. There are no technical issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.
Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live, under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there are no noticeable issues. Dialogue is perfectly clear and the music is vibrant and resonant with occasional deep rumbles. The music is quite a bit louder than the dialogue however, so this can boom out unexpectedly between scenes. There are no scenes however where backing music overpowers the dialogue.
Although the enclosed booklet continues to provide translations of the content in French and German, subtitles for those languages are no longer supplied for the performance on the RSC releases. Subtitles are now in English only, presenting Shakespeare's text.
As with all the releases from the RSC so far, there's a full Director's Commentary here from Iqbal Khan and Assistant Director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon that can be listened to during the performance. Also in the extra features, the principal actors explore their characters in The Story of Othello, and there's a more in-depth discussion of the nature and character of the Moor by several actors who have played the role in other productions in Who is Othello?. There is also a Cast Gallery and a booklet with a brief synopsis and an essay by Tracey Chevalier on the outsider status of Othello.
The measure of a good Othello is that, in its best performances, it can aspire to be a dramatic tragedy as epic and as full of nuance and character as Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear. Iqbal Khan finds the common thread of a tortured mind, distorted by the presence of death and violence in the militaristic undercurrents of Othello, and he brings them clearly to the fore, supported by some brilliant, edgy and violent acting performances. This is an explosive Othello from the RSC.