Jonno Roberts has made a career of playing the bad guy. This winter, he’s returning to Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) for the second time to play Iago in Othello, perhaps the most notorious villain in Shakespeare’s canon.
The New Zealand native views his role as Iago as a sort of right of passage for playing the bad boys of Shakespeare in the nation’s capital. He played Edmund in STC’s King Lear several years ago opposite Stacy Keach, and is looking forward to coming back as yet another of the Bard’s famous antagonists.
I will have played two of Shakespeare’s great villains now at the Shakespeare Theatre,” he says. “I think I just have to do Richard III there and I’ll be done.”
Roberts relishes the challenge of showing that the villain isn’t purely one-dimensional; rather, he’s completely human. Plus, he loves to wrestle with the bad guys.
“I have a deep love of finding just how dark I can go on the inside. I have no need to actually be a murderer myself, but it’s nice to go and find and exercise that little bit of myself that is.”
The actor contends that Iago isn’t pure evil, but instead someone who feels he has been deeply wronged and is therefore motivated to retaliate in the most sinister of ways. Iago spends the tragedy manipulating Othello, a successful and recently married Moorish general, turning him against his new wife and devoted lieutenant.
And to Roberts, it makes sense. He cites a quote from
18th-century poet (and opium addict) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who referred to Iago as a “motiveless malignity.” The actor’s rebuttal?
“I think that’s complete bullshit. Iago is one of the great revenge characters.”
He makes a strong case, too. Roberts says Iago has been passed over for a very important promotion, so his pride has been battered.
“And then he also thinks that this guy has slept with his wife so he decides that, ‘You know what? You f–ed my wife. You f–ed my career. I am going to destroy you.’”
Roberts thinks his focus on humanizing the bad guy is part of what sealed the deal with acclaimed Shakespeare director Ron Daniels, who brought him on board for the production.
Daniels has been credited with revolutionizing and modernizing Shakespeare, and with launching Kenneth Branagh’s career. Roberts has worked with the director before, and the two truly seem to share a vision for how to present the Bard’s work to audiences.
“He really changed the way we look at Shakespeare,” Roberts says of the director. “Not by dismantling it, but by doing microsurgery on it – by getting to know it better rather than trying to throw away all of our assumptions. He just digs deeper.”
One very unique approach Daniels is taking to STC’s production is in his casting choices, with Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir playing Othello. Roberts says they’re both trying to hold up a mirror to America with the play, delving into the anti-Muslim sentiment in our country in a very real way.
Social commentary and humanizing the villain are part of the draw for Roberts, but his main reason for performing Shakespeare is quite simple.
“I just think this shit is good. That’s why I do it.”
Catch a performance of Othello at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall from February 23 to March 27. Young Prose Nights for theatergoers under 35 run on March 11 and 23, with $25 tickets and pre- or post-performance libations.
Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230; www.shakespearetheatre.org
Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre