My answer, which I seem to recall formed a large part of my A Level English Lit coursework, is that it isn't. I don’t think Iago is genuinely racist, I think he’s just a shitty human being for whom racism (and suspicions of his wife’s infidelity and Cassio's promotion over him) are convenient excuses for his shitty behaviour. (I didn't phrase it quite like that in the coursework.) For me, the line that tells you the most about Iago and his motivations is when he says of killing Cassio “he hath a daily beauty in his life which makes me ugly”. I want to kill him because he’s a better person than me, in other words. See, shitty human being.
More importantly, though, he’s an amazing Iago in an amazing, clever production.
What was most interesting about the production for me is the way it dealt with the (lack of the) race issue. My expectation was that it would simply ignore it completely. What it did instead was use it to create a solidarity and kinship between Iago and Othello which made the former’s corruption of the latter seem a lot more plausible than it often does. Because Cassio is white, and a different age to Othello and Iago another factor which this production plays on extremely effectively, the sense of the other that is usually directed at Othello is often aimed at him (for example during the scene in which Iago gets him drunk when he attempts to engage in a rap battle with the rest of the - predominantly non-white - military unit) which is an interesting twist on the character dynamics that opens the play up in an entirely different way.
The other particularly interesting thing the production does is to destroy this idea that Othello is ‘the noble Moor’, an exceptional example of gallantry from an otherwise suspicious race. This is done through the obvious implicit statement that having a black Iago makes, but more strikingly through playing up the idea of Othello as the hardened military man. Most obviously this is done through a scene in which Othello oversees the waterboarding of an enemy soldier and then later when he ties Iago to a chair and tortures him with a drill and hammer into telling what he ‘knows’ about Desdemona's infidelity. It’s a fascinating take on the character and, again, makes the transformation of Othello seem more plausible and the play feel more modern.
No performance of Othello, however innovative, can be successful without exceptional performances though and it’s in this regard that the play is particularly thrilling.
Hugh Quarshie's Othello is by far the most complex and rounded iteration of the character I’ve seen, partly due to the decisions director Iqbal Khan takes with his characterisation as mentioned above but also because of a by turns jovial, sad, threatening and tragic performance that I don’t think puts a foot wrong. He captures the moments during Othello’s ‘conversion’ particularly well and his torture scenes are genuinely frightening, especially the waterboarding one as he casually wanders around the victim adjusting his glasses. His is a less sympathetic Othello, and all the better for it.
As is so often the way with this play, it’s Lucian Msamati's Iago who steals the show though. He is an outstanding Iago, the best I've seen, who hides an even-nastier-than-usual streak beneath an air of easy joviality. His soliloquies are delivered with such avuncular nonchalance that it’s quite difficult to either disagree with or dislike his logic and thought processes. For all that though, he is frightening in a way that other Iago's I've seen aren't. He doesn't seem to be as in control of what’s happening as Iago usually is, but the way his brain moves so quickly from one horrible act to the next makes him a more dastardly - and plausible - villain. And the very last scene, as he kneels, laughing, next to Othello, Desdemona and Emilia’s dead bodies as the lights fade, is one of the most memorable moments of theatre I've seen this year. It’s a masterful performance and worth the price of a ticket alone.
The play also looks beautiful, all fading Venetian arches and clever use of a water trough under the stage, and sounds fantastic too, with a live soundtrack of an eclectic mix of (I think) mostly African instruments and, when required, modern dance beats. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which I’d never been to before, is a fantastic space to which I hope to return frequently.
I don’t think I need to do an ‘overall...’ paragraph for this one as it is, I hope, obvious how much I loved this production. Go and see it. Go and see it now.
Othello plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until 28th August and is getting a cinema broadcast on 26th August.