Director Iqbal Khan
“A production that makes us see a familiar tragedy from a totally fresh perspective” Michael Billington, Guardian, 12 June 2015
Iqbal Khan made his RSC debut directing an Indian set Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival In 2015 he returned to direct Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. In an innovative twist, Khan cast two black actors, Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati, as Othello and Iago. Collaborating with Iqbal Kahn on this fresh approach were the set and lighting designer Ciaran Bagnall, and costume designer Fotini Dimou, both of whom combined modernity with references to Venice’s rich history as a maritime super-power. Akintayo Akinbode’s evocative music was another crucial element in the play’s setting.
Venice and Cyprus sets
“A recognisable world” Ciaran Bagnall, Othello programme, 2015
Ciaran Bagnall’s designs and lighting were striking, modern and adaptable as we can see in these two images of the sets for the opening scene in Venice and the port scene in Cyprus. Both director Iqbal Khan and Bagnall wanted the setting to have contemporary relevance. The crumbling architectural grandeur of Venice was suggested by a central tall arch at the rear of the stage, flanked by two balconies, one of which became Brabantio’s house at the start of the play. Graffiti was just visible on the walls either side of the stage and the arches provided useful spaces to eavesdrop.
Water was the key symbol in the design and reflected the two locations of the play, Venice, whose unique lagoon location was crucial to its commercial empire, and Cyprus, a militarily strategic island in the Mediterranean. The play began with Iago and Rodorigo punting on a canal. The small ‘canal’ contained a submerged grill which could be raised to cover the open water when required for interior scenes. The central arch divided and swung away from the audience enabling projections on the back wall to suggest different locations and moods, demonstrated here in the second image of the port of Cyprus.
Fotini Dimou’s modern-dress designs ranged from high fashion for Desdemona, or high street for the lower status characters, to standard military uniforms. Othello’s costumes conveyed authority and charisma as a commander in the Venetian army but also made him stand out. Both his civilian and military outfits were flamboyant. His costumes included a plum-coloured velvet jacket with a handsome purple and gold scarf, and a well-cut military trench-coat, seen here, worn over his gold tunic and trousers. The second design sketch shows us Othello’s colourful waistcoat which he wore in the party scene in Cyprus, where he dances with his new bride, Desdemona. Attached to both design sketches are sample fabrics or swatches to help the creative team decide which material will work best.
Designs for Desdemona
“Fotini Dimou’s astonishing array of costumes enhance Desdemona’s otherness in Othello’s khaki world.” Paul Edmondson, The Stage, 12 June 2015
Fotini Dimou’s costume designs for Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona were fashionably stylish and eye-catching. The first sketch shows Desdemona’s full-length, metallic-grey gown with a funnel-shaped reversible collar which she wore in the early Venetian scenes of the play. The colour of the gown suggests military grey which benefits the wife of a commander in the Venetian army. Sample fabrics for the collar and main gown are attached to the sketch for reference. The designer has also suggested the use of ‘large poppers’ or press studs, presumably to fasten the collar to the gown. Press studs and even magnets are used as fasteners in costumes for durability, to enable quick-changing and to minimize noise.
The second sketch is another silver-grey dress with close-fitting sleeves and bolero (short jacket) which Desdemona wore in Cyprus. Her other costumes included two chiffon dresses, one of green and fawn and the other of yellow, worn with a dramatic necklace of gun-metal spikes.
Duke of Venice's costume
In another break with conventional casting, the Duke of Venice was played by the female actor Nadia Albina. Her costume design by Fotini Dimou emphasized her powerful status as the ruler of the Venetian empire. From the eighth to the eighteenth centuries, the republic of Venice was ruled by a Doge, sometimes translated as Duke, who was elected by the leading citizens via an elaborate and complicated voting system.
In these images of the costume in production and the design sketch, we see that the outfit comprised a tightly-fitted, shimmery, midnight-blue jacket, with a pointed hem reaching the knees, a long pleated skirt and high platform shoes. Regalia-like accessories included a sturdy earring with silver chains, worn in the left ear, and a matching large disc broach with a central eye motif and chains, which was pinned to the centre of the jacket. The Duke was accompanied by black-suited senators, whose outfits also suggested that they were ready for business.
Photo by Keith Pattison; designed by Fotini Dimou
© RSC; design © Fotini Dimou –
Handing over the handkerchief
“What will you do with’t, that you have been so earnest to have me filch it?” Emilia, Act 3 Scene 3
Lucian Msamati was the first black actor to play Iago at the RSC. His Iago was a charming, lively joker who was also a sadistic manipulator and tormenter. Both Lucian Msamati’s Iago and Hugh Quarshie’s Othello were outsiders but Iago’s hatred couldn’t easily be attributed to racism, rather it stemmed from a much deeper psychology, as Lucian Msamati explained when discussing the character of Iago.
In this production image, mischief-making Iago is delighted when his wife, Emilia (Ayesha Dharker), produces the handkerchief, which was Othello’s special gift to Desdemona. Unusually, the handkerchief decorated with strawberries had a black background and was first seen on Desdemona’s left wrist. The accidental loss of this handkerchief, and Iago’s malicious use of it to convince Othello of his wife’s infidelity, help to propel the drama to its tragic conclusion.
Othello camera script
Othello was broadcast live to cinemas on 26 August 2015, with encore screening in cinemas worldwide from 23 September 2015. The camera script was a combination of the text, edited by director Iqbal Khan, and the technical cues for the filming. Here we see the moment in the script where Desdemona sings the melancholy Willow Song before her fatal encounter with Othello. Cue #634 starts with a long shot on Emilia and Desdemona with the pool in the foreground, before the camera slowly tracks right and narrows its focus on Desdemona singing. See the Cinema trailer and discover other RSC shows Live from Stratford-upon-Avon .
A watery Willow Song
“Sing all a green willow must be my garland” Desdemona, Act 4 Scene 3
In this production image, we see how the same scene appeared onstage. Desdemona dangled her legs in the pool as she sang the Willow Song and playfully splashed Emilia (Ayesha Dharker) at one point. In her blog Pathways to Shakespeare, Joanna Vanderham explains how she prepared for the Willow Song by taking twice weekly singing lessons before rehearsals began. The Willow Song was part of Akintayo Akinbode’s haunting score which can be heard on Othello Songs and Speeches CD, available from our shop. The composer had previously worked with director Gregory Doran and his memorable band The Vibes of March played on stage during Julius Caesar in 2012.