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Review: The RSC's muscular Othello

Othello production images_ 2015_Photo by Keith Pattison _c_ RSC_Othello.2866
Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in the RSC's Othello. Photo: Keith Pattison

The opening scene of the RSC's Othello has a Venetian canal, the water reflecting on the wall of the neighbouring building but this is just a brief moment of beautiful reflection before Iago (Lucian Msamati) uses the pole of the punt to strangle Roderigo (James Corrigan) just enough to force him to his purpose.

In just a few moments it has set the tone for this muscular and sometimes brutal production. Director Iqbal Khan plays up the military background of the story - Iago, Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and others are testosterone fulled soldiers full of battle and killing. We are shown scenes of torture - waterboarding and worse - which are a matter of course in these men's minds.

When the battle starts and finishes very quickly on Crete the soldiers are left idle and passions easily ignited which all works in Iago's favour as he plots his revenge on Othello.

Othello production images_ 2015_Photo by Keith Pattison _c_ RSC_Othello.2957
Joanna Vanderham, Ayesha Dharker and Hugh Quarshie in the RSC's Othello. Photo: Keith Pattison

Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham) looks beautiful and delicate but has hint of feistiness to her which works well in this setting. And Quarshie's Othello is one that doesn't quite believe his luck in having wooed Desdemona and is therefore easily persuaded that it is too good to be true and that she has strayed.

Emilia (Ayesha Dharker), perhaps seeing how well Othello initially treats Desdemona is reminded of the lack of affection she receives from her own husband and seems desperate to win her way back into his arms.

While Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), is a naive young gentleman behaving impeccably towards Desdemona while a bit laddish and caddish elsewhere.  It is easy to see how he would be blind to Iago's purpose and easily manipulated.

When it comes to Iago, it is difficult not to compare it to Rory Kinnear's portrayal at the National Theatre which has stuck in my mind. They are very different Iago's the latter making up for being a physical weaker man with subtle guile and cunning. Msamati is much more physical, less fun than Kinnear's, and as a result you get a different sense of danger,  a feeling that he wouldn't stab you in the back if stabbing you in the front was easier and more painful.

When Desdemonda goes to him upset about Othello's treatment of her you are scrutinising his face for any sign of sympathy or regret. Is there a flash? I'm not sure. It is the women that you feel the most sympathy for in this production. Desdemona, Emilia who realises too late what her husband is and the courtesan Bianca who is used by Cassio. 

Othello's moment of revenge on Iago - not the first time he is violent towards him - is a wound purposefully inflicted to cause a slow and painful death which feels very much in character.

This is a satisfying production with some great staging design - the canal just being one. It is always going to be difficult watching with objective eyes when a previous production was so good but I think it does well in its differences.

Othello is two hours and 55 minutes plus a 20 minute interval and is in rep at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, until 28 August.