top of page
Into the soul of Othello – small forces make a big impact
Mark Lawson, The Tablet, 12 October 2023

The historical texts of Othello list at least 30 characters, depending on how many senators, officers, gentlemen and attendants are deployed; last year’s production by Clint Dyer at the National Theatre used 20 actors. So the fact that a version just transferred to London from New York has a cast of seven makes clear this staging has an unusual actor-role equation – and still more so when three of the performers play Iago. 


By traditional maths, that should leave four actors to portray up to 29 other roles; but director Sinéad Rushe has cut the characters to seven – Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia/Roderigo, Cassio/Brabantio. (The slashes indicating doubling.) 


The effect of this is to make the expansive five-act Venetian/Cypriot tragedy a short (100-minute) chamber piece focusing on the poisoning of Othello’s mind against himself by his lieutenant Iago, who is motivated by being overlooked for military promotion and – older generations are still sometimes surprised by this, due to using sexually bowdlerised editions at school – Iago’s conviction that Othello has cuckolded him. 


In this intelligent diminution, Othello becomes a relentless revenge tragedy in the manner of John Webster. If three Iagos – Michael C. Fox, Orlando James, Jeremy Neumark Jones, physically and vocally very distinctive – sounds a gimmick, it is one that Sigmund Freud would have cheered. 


Rushe has spotted that Iago often contradicts himself in speeches that are usually delivered as conspiratorial soliloquies with the audience. For example, his “evidence” of Othello’s adultery with his wife Emilia runs: “And it is thought that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true…” With a switch of Iagos between “my office” and “I know” – an example of the internal arguments introduced generally to his text – he becomes a sort of tri-polar character, the versions of him debating with each other, while invoking – depending on the audience’s guiding ideology – conscience, guardian angel, doubt, ego, id. 


The triplicate tempters – deliberately invoking and subverting the prophetic, conspiratorial trio of the “weird sisters” in Macbeth – may also represent the public mob, electorate or digital discourse, spreading racist and otherwise inflammatory lies that may have fatal consequences. 


Martins Imhangbe’s commanding, entrancing Othello is completely convincing as the unstoppable soldier and irresistible lover that the text asks for; with Iago trifurcated, it is the title character who confides in the audience. Viscerally thrilling in this iteration, Imhangbe’s Moor of Venice could equally grace any larger-budget, bigger-stage production. 


Rose Riley’s Desdemona emanates an agency and loyalty that, tragically, cannot resist the bigoted conspiracy aimed against her. 


It has always seemed to me that, while The Merchant Of Venice is a potentially racist play, Othello is a play against racism, and spectacularly so in this rendition. 


The triple Iagos powerfully suggest how, in a divided society, those instinctively resistant to hatred can be swung by the majority, or even a powerful single voice. “Perdition, catch my soul!” blasphemously challenges Othello. Few productions have taken us so deeply inside both his soul and that of his “damn’d Iago”.

bottom of page