When in 1989 the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ex-artistic director Trevor Nunn
suggested a production of Othello
as the last production at the old tin hut called “The Other Place” in Stratford-upon-Avon, the management hesitated, even though the renowned opera baritone Willard White was to make his dramatic debut as the Moor. It was rumoured that Nunn paid for the stage production and eventually for part of the costs to make a video version. Playing Iago would be a return to my partnership with Nunn
at the same address where we had done Macbeth
13 years before. With scarcely 100 seats, it was an appropriate theatre for a play which is invariably domestic and where claustrophobia can contribute to the effect.
Iago is an easy part to bring off and rarely fails to impress. I am not the first to realise that there is no need to act the underlying falsity of the man rather to play “honest Iago” on all occasions. “Do not smile or sneer or glower —
try to impress even the audience with your sincerity”: Edwin Booth. As Iago confides the truth to the audience (as always in Shakespeare), they are privy to his deceit and the gulling of Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona and Othello himself. It is an unfair advantage and early on Willard accused me of trying to get the audience on my side against him. I explained that I didn’t need to try —
Shakespeare had organised it that the villain’s part should be the audience’s portal into the action. The history of the play records many more serious misunderstandings between the Moor and his Ancient.
Within his confessional asides, Iago makes his motives clear. I wouldn’t have known how to play the critical cliché of the man as the embodiment of all evil. So I played the jealous husband who suspects “the lustful Moor hath leaped into my seat” and can urge his boss to “beware of jealousy” because he himself is a victim of it. This plus what he takes to be Cassio’s unfair promotion over him, is more than enough for him to hate. Mischief turns to mayhem as he warms to his successful attack on the commanding officer and his wife. It is yet another Shakespeare tale of what happens when soldiers are not fighting — they get up to no good. So Iago can be compared with Don John, Macbeth, Richard 3 —
all admirable professional fighters who also go off the rails away from the battlefield. The costumes were updated to mid-19th century and the whole show was another example of Trevor Nunn’s invariable basic approach to the classics —
a belief that a naturalistic analysis of the characters will bring them explosively to life. It had worked with our Macbeth
and The Alchemist
and with Othello
did so again. — Ian McKellen, May 2003