First black Iago cast in Shakespeare's Othello

Best of British: There is no shortage of black talent here, but there is a shortage of work.

Shakespeare’s villain will be played by a black actor for the first time in Britain, the Royal Shakespeare Company has announced. Is this a great step forward for racial equality in acting?

‘I hate the Moor’, declares Iago in Act One of Shakespeare’s play 'Othello'. Iago, one of literature’s darkest villains, is on a single-minded mission to destroy his military commander’s life, eventually tricking Othello into murdering his wife, Desdemona.

Although his exact race is unknown, it is clear from the word ‘Moor‘ that Othello is a black man, while Iago and the other characters are white Europeans. As a result, racial politics dominates the play.

For example, when Iago tells Brabantio that Othello will elope with his daughter, Desdemona's father is enraged at the idea of a mixed-race marriage. He accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce her, despite that fact that she is in love with Othello. Iago describes Othello in racist and abusive language as a ‘black ram’, while descriptions of good and evil are frequently depicted using colour.

As a result, the play has often been controversial. Several black actors have refused to play the part of Othello, arguing that playing the role perpetuates racial prejudices and stereotypes about black men.

But what if Iago were also played by a black actor? Last week, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced that this would be the case, as Iago will be played by Lucian Msamati, who also stars in the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series.

As the company’s artistic director acknowledges, a black Iago could make ‘Othello’ a very different play when it is staged next year in Stratford-upon-Avon. Some have argued before that the play does not need to be centred on a black-white racial confrontation, and a black Iago will prove this.

The news comes at a time of increasing anger at the lack of roles for black actors in the UK. Actors Idris Elba and Lenny Henry are among those who have written an open letter to television executives arguing that more needs to be done to encourage black people into the industry. Many, like Elba, feel that they have a far better chance of good roles in the US and are only appreciated at home after success across the Atlantic. The actress Sophie Okonedo recently commented that ,unlike her white counterparts, she struggles to get roles in the UK.

Drama and diversity

Some say it is a hugely positive step forward that one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays will include a black Iago. This decision will allow us to consider the play in a new light and to consider the position of black actors in UK theatre more generally.

But others say this isn’t enough. A single high profile role to a black actor will not solve the problem in UK film, television and theatre. Initiatives such as quotas, or funding to encourage more black people into acting is required, not just one black Iago.

You Decide

  1. Do you think it is important that a black actor has been cast to play Iago by the RSC?
  2. Should broadcasters and theatres implement quotas to increase racial diversity on TV and on stage?

Activities

  1. In groups, discuss your favourite television programmes and films. Work out as a rough percentage how many of the main characters are from ethnic minorities.
  2. Research the plotline and main themes of ‘Othello.’ Write your own scene or act loosely based on the play and set in modern times.

Some People Say...

“Great programmes are produced by the multicultural many, not the mono-cultural elite.’Lenny Henry”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a fan of Shakespeare, so why does this affect me?
Shakespeare is one of the world's greatest writers, and his work continues to influence how we think about the great issues of human existence. 'Othello' is a particularly powerful play about violence, love, jealousy and race. If directors can cast a black Iago, it raises the question as to why black actors aren’t being given opportunities elsewhere.
I hadn’t realised this was a problem.
The number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people working in the UK television industry fell by 30.9% between 2006 and 2012, and they now make up 5.4% of the broadcasting workforce. Black actors are leaving the UK because they are being offered more roles in the US. This is having a devastating impact on the UK creative industries.

Word Watch

Shakespeare
William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote around 38 plays and 154 sonnets, and his work has been translated into every major living language.
Moor
The Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an Islamic army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula. They ruled Spain for 800 years.
Colour
After Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair, Othello laments: ‘Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face.’ Dian’s visage means the face of Diana, goddess of the moon.
Several black actors
In the actor Hugh Quarshie’s essay Second Thoughts About Othello,he writes: ‘Perhaps Othello is the one [part] which should most definitely not be played by a black actor. Does he not risk making racial stereotypes legitimate and true?’.
Stratford-upon-avon
Shakespeare was born and brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there in 1616. It is now the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.