Chukwudi Iwuji and Corey Stoll are veterans of Shakespeare, the Public Theater and Central Park's summer series Shakespeare in the Park. But both men are new to their roles in Othello, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for this summer’s production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater—Iwuji as the Moorish Venetian general, Othello; Stoll as his duplicitous ensign, Iago.
Though Othello is many things to many people, Santiago-Hudson’s 2018 production anchors the classic tragedy in the love story between Othello and Desdemona, Othello’s wife, according to Iwuji. Of course, it isn’t meant to be as Iago’s plotting leads Othello to — spoiler alert! — kill her in the end. “I actually strangled my wife today, so that’s a bit weird,” Iwuji said of his rehearsal with Heather Lind (Desdemona) on the day he spoke to Metro. “We came up with a really cool way of killing Desdemona. So yeah, we’re having a great time.”
Iwuji is a British Nigerian actor who grew up in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom, so he's always been an outsider. It may seem that this upbringing, paired with his early professional work at Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, would groom him to play Shakespeare’s most famous outsider. In fact, he hadn’t really thought about it until Anthony Hopkins put the bug in his ear on the set of Richard Eyre’s 2018 King Lear for BBC Two. “But I’m so grateful it’s here, because it is a deeply extraordinary play and an extraordinary character.”
For Stoll, the challenge lies in crafting his version of Iago, who pretends to be Othello's friend before betraying him. “You could spend a lifetime reading these plays and you’ll find new layers and new echoes and contradictions and references,” he says. “First, there’s a process of trying to discover everything that’s in the text, and then you really need to edit. It’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to roles like these. It’s a different Iago for every actor who plays him.”
Iwuji agrees the bulk of his work lies in interpreting what's on the page. “Shakespeare was the world’s greatest director, not just a writer. He directs his actors with his language, and that’s something people have to trust — it’s in the language. My homework is getting the lines down big time, sounding, speaking them out, seeing how they affect me, because a lot of the effect isn’t just cerebral, it’s not just meaning. It’s literally the sound of the word. What does that do to your body?”
Othello is particularly suited to Shakespeare in the Park's venue, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Iago is an unreliable narrator who tells lies in his asides, turning the audience into collaborators. “Anybody opening up their mind to you, in a sort of an open and vulnerable way, makes you complicit in what they’re doing, even if what they’re doing is reprehensible,” says Stoll. “Regardless of how much you would despise Iago if he were a real person, you’re forced to be on his team, just by dint of knowing what the plot is. And so does he.”
On playing outdoors in the Park, Iwuji says, “Ultimately, theater is communion. And usually, you have the communion between you and the audience. But in a space like [the Delacorte], there’s you, the audience, and there’s friggin’ nature, and you can’t beat that. So, it’s magical.”
Othello runs at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park from May 29-June 24, with official opening night on Monday, June 18. Admission is free; see our guide on how to get tickets to Shakespeare in the Park productions.