Is Othello a racist play? RSC actor Hugh Quarshie is asking the question

The RSC's Othello. Picture: Keith Pattison

The RSC's Othello. Picture: Keith Pattison - Credit: Archant

When it launched back in June, the RSC’s Othello gained headlines for starring a black Iago. For Hugh Quarshie, who plays the eponymous tragic hero, there’s another issue that plagues him, says Alex Bellotti

Ask almost any actor about their latest role and inevitably it is “wonderful”, a “gift” or a “gem”. For Hugh Quarshie, however, his current stint as Othello at the RSC has brought over two decades of doubts bubbling to the surface, and he’s not entirely satisfied.

The great Shakespearean tragedy has undergone countless adaptations, but nearly always adheres to the same narrative. The eponymous ‘Moor of Venice’, one of the greatest generals of his day, is married to the beautiful Desdemona, but after succumbing to the manipulations of his embittered comrade Iago, believes her to be adulterous and murders her in a jealous rage.

For Quarshie, the issue is whether this fall from grace ultimately betrays a racist Elizabethan stereotyping of the “emotionally incontinent” black man. Why is it, he asks, that in practically one scene a figure even as wise, composed and experienced as Othello can be manipulated into becoming a mindless, savage outsider? Was Shakespeare unaware of this poor logic because of attitudes at the time, or worse, was he aware but bigoted?

“It’s an interesting thing, the way that the play has been weighted with so much significance and meaning,” says the Temple Fortune actor, “and I think the reason for that is just because it was written by a white man 400 years ago for another white man in black face make-up.

“I suppose it was normal for them to do that; they had the conventions of young boys playing women’s parts, and I suspect when women come to play some of the roles in Shakespeare they encounter some difficulties as well. All the strange cross-dressing plots and the ultra femininity of the female characters – I think a conscious modern actress would think, ‘Would my character really say that?’

“Similarly when a black actor comes to play a role written for a white performer, some of those lines become problematic. My suspicion is that Shakespeare was not really that interested in the psychology of Othello or his behavioural credibility – in a way, he was much more interested in Iago. But when a conscious black actor comes to play the role, he’s got to address those issues and ask, ‘Is this a plausible thing for me to say?’ Sometimes the answer is ‘I’m not sure’, and sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”

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Quarshie first raised such concerns in his seminal 1998 essay, Second Thoughts about Othello. The text prompted so much discussion that the veteran actor James Earl Jones – a seven-time performer of the ‘Moor’ – retorted that perhaps its author should play the part himself, and Quarshie admits it was a “real fillip to get the endorsement of the voice of Darth Vader himself”.

The new RSC production – which will screen live across cinemas including the Finchley Road Vue on August 26 – has also been driven by the essay’s suggestions. One decision in particular has gathered headlines: when it debuted back in June, Iqbal Khan’s adaptation made history by becoming the first RSC Othello to cast a black actor (Lucian Msamati) as Iago.

“It was felt that there was no significant loss of meaning if you feel it is a play about race hatred,” explains Quarshie, “because it’s quite common, as we know to our cost, for one black African to despise another black African. In Rwanada, in South Africa, in Nigeria, there are many examples of that, and the idea of Iago resenting the fact that his veteran commander has promoted this young white boy, Cassio, over his head also fuels it.”

It certainly adds another dimension – as the 60-year-old admits, it’s more believable to see Othello trusting the treacherous Iago when “he believes he’s one of his own kind”. On the other hand, there was a danger that the show’s pre-publicity could further the widely-held assumption that Othello is really Iago’s play.

To counter this, in the RSC’s contemporary adaptation, Othello is seen to quite brutally torture Iago – at once reversing the balance of power and providing more grounding for his eventual descent into savagery.

“It was our aim to make it much harder for Iago to put his plot into effect and increase the jeopardy for him, in that once he’d awoken the jealousy in Othello he’d be as much at risk of that rage as Cassio or Desdemona,” says Quarshie. “My hope is that while Lucian may steal the first half, I think the second half is mine!”

Nonetheless, the famous ‘temptation scene’, where Iago convinces Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity with noticable ease, remains problematic. So plagued by this moment was Quarshie that during the final days of rehearsals, he also recorded a radio show discussing the play’s potential racism with past actors of Othello including Earl Jones, Adrian Lester and Sir Willard White.

“It’s a hell of a transition – I talked to Adrian Lester about it and he found it very difficult. It kind of fuels my suspicion, as I say, that Shakespeare wasn’t that bothered with a credible psychology of Othello, but just wanted to get to the seismic eruptions of emotion and the poetic arias that have become known as the ‘Othello music’.

“It’s the one element of the play which perhaps resists the modern idiom that we’ve given it. Why doesn’t Othello, having been persuaded that the wife that he’s passionately in love with has betrayed him with Cassio, simply just divorce her and send her home in shame?”

Ultimately, as much as the production tries to legitimise Othello’s fall from grace, Quarshie admits it can still require a suspension of belief. Away from the subject matter itself, however, is he pleased at least to see two BAME actors taking lead parts in a major national production? Also notable for his continued role as Ric Griffin in Holby City, Quarshie has previously spoken of his pride at the show employing a cast of at least 30 per cent BAME actors.

“Yes, and I think that the RSC, to give it credit, has been at the forefront of diversity in casting,” he says, noting how in the group’s 1982 version of Henry IV Part I, director Sir Trevor Nunn had no problems in casting Quarshie as Hotspur after the role’s incumbent, Timothy Dalton, left to play James Bond.

But outside the RSC? “It remains a problem, I think. There is still quite an issue about casting ethnic minorities – particularly women – in the classics. But I see no reason why we couldn’t have black Cordelias, black Imogens or black Ophelias.

“It’s taking a little while to get there, but ultimately it should be a matter of ability rather than ethnicity. And to that extent, the theatre could take a leaf out of the books of Holby City and Casualty!”

RSC Live: Othello will screen at cinemas nationwide, including the Vue in Finchley Road’s O2 centre, on Wednesday August 26.