Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Iago

Nine of the best performances of Shakespeare’s great villain

May/June 2015

1964 FRANK FINLAY, NATIONAL THEATRE
Olivier took care that his Othello should not be overshadowed by giving the part of Iago to Frank Finlay – who duly sank to the occasion as a plodding squaddie, in lowly contrast to his glamorous general. Olivier, however, always at his best in physical contact, granted that privilege to his unsavoury underling, who seized the opportunity to cling round his neck like an incubus pouring poison in his ear. As a character, his motive was erotic; as an actor, it was self-preservation. In these scenes, Olivier was not the boss.

1971 EMRYS JAMES, ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
In John Barton’s Crimean production, James’s Iago was an obliging underdog, a head shorter than Brewster Mason’s Othello, who chuckled amiably as Iago drove him into madness. It was an encounter between an elephant and a jackal. A pasty-faced menial in crumpled battledress, James confided in the audience with lips stretched tight in an intimate snarl – implying that we, too, all hate the beautiful people and would destroy them, given the chance. Bob Peck (1979, also RSC) pursued a similar line, so Donald Sinden’s naturally aristocratic Othello was driven to his death by one of nature’s untouchables.

1972 ANTON PHILLIPS, OPEN SPACE
Charles Marowitz’s rewrite, “An Othello”, moved race (marginal in Shakespeare) to the centre of the drama. It turned on Malcolm X’s contrast between the Field Negro, who understands and hates his white master, and the House Negro, an Uncle Tom figure who unthinkingly fights Mister Charlie’s wars. Iago thus becomes a revolutionary activist, working to reclaim Othello (Rudolph Walker, pictured left) for the black brotherhood. It may not have been Shakespeare, but it gave Anton Phillips’s Iago a whale of a motive.

1976 TIMOTHY WEST, NOTTINGHAM PLAYHOUSE
Taking advantage of Daniel Massey’s flyweight Othello, Timothy West used every trick in Iago’s repertoire to push the play towards farce. The most plain-dealing character on stage, he enlisted the audience as conniving accomplices in the farcical pleasure of knocking a big shot off his plinth. Forget plot motive; the show’s mainspring was that we are all Iagos.

1995 KENNETH BRANAGH (FILM)
Dripping verbal venom as he leant in close to Laurence Fishburne’s sensuous Othello, Branagh enunciated every syllable with dapper finesse. In Oliver Parker’s film, Branagh’s vaudevillian instincts were to the fore, as he steered one character behind a screen, another behind a door, with the dexterity of the actor-manager that, in real life, he is. Bar the sliver-thin lips, Branagh has an ordinary face (try describing it to an identikit artist), and his blue eyes, beaver-brown hair and trim beard suggested the banality of evil. In the damask-laden candlelight, you yearn to see Iago’s grievances eating more deeply into his face.

1997 SIMON RUSSELL BEALE, NT
His head was shaved, showing a sinister crease of flesh at the base of his neck, and his venomous voice played on his victims with a deadpan insouciance. In his lumpy military jacket, Beale’s Iago was the last man you’d want scrutinising your passport at midnight on the Soviet border. Sam Mendes put David Harewood’s glamorous Othello in a 1930s world of black tie, cigars and brandy. Beale brought an air of film noir, icily shuffling papers as he stoked Othello’s fears, and tut-tutting as he stabbed Roderigo, in much the way he stamped out his cigarette.

2001 JOSH HARTNETT, CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON (FILMS)
“Othello” updated: Iago becomes Hugo in America and Jago in Britain. “O” finds canny parallels in high-school basketball. Martin Sheen’s red-faced coach tells the whole school he loves the star player, Odin, like a son. A scholarship boy, Odin is dating the dean’s daughter Desi. None of this plays well with Hartnett’s Hugo, the coach’s real son, who is also in the team. His close-set eyes soak in the slights and his adolescent grunts bring an unsettling credibility. (Following the Columbine massacre, “O” took two years to open.) An ocean apart, the British rewrite by Andrew Davies is grittier and jauntier, with Eccleston’s craggy Jago as a corrupt cop. Pacing the corridors and taunting the camera with his cynicism, he’s a direct descendant of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian schemer.

2014 RORY KINNEAR, NT
This Iago, winner of an Olivier as Best Actor, might well have a white van. He’s a no-nonsense Londoner who jabs his points home with his index finger while holding a pint and a cigarette in the same hand. Nicholas Hytner’s thrilling Iraq war production pitted Kinnear’s bullish Iago against an exact, suave Adrian Lester. When both swapped civvie street for combat fatigues, the one undid the other in a strip-lit pre-fab. Kinnear could stand right at the back of a scene and pull the focus with a squaddie’s muscular stillness. Even when his eyes were cast down, you could see disdain in the crinkle of his lips and resentment in the twitch of his cheek. Follow that. The RSC rises to the challenge with a black Iago, played by Lucian Msamati.

Othello RSC, Stratford, from June 4th; live in cinemas around the world, Aug 26th

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.