***** (out of five)
Reviewed by James Karas
The National Theatre has produced Othello as a modern war drama that is full of subtleties and magnificent performances. It is the work of Director Nicholas Hytner who can take risks and deliver outstanding theatre.
In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo meet outside a pub. As Iago expresses his hatred of Othello, Roderigo offers him a cigarette. He takes one and puts the pack in his pocket. That is a nice touch of characterization of our villain who is not just a grossly evil man but also a small time pilferer. There are numerous such touches throughout this masterly production.
Adrian Lester’s Othello appears dressed in a suit like a gentleman without military or heroic bearing. He speaks well despite his claim to have no talent for courtly language. We will witness this gentleman deteriorate into a murderous animal and in the final great scene regain his stature and nobility as he realizes the enormity of what he has done. It is a performance of enormous subtlety and power.
Iago is always the more interesting character and that holds true for this production with Rory Kinnear in the role. From pilfering Roderigo’s cigarettes to his manipulation of Othello, Iago is a low-class thug. He does not seem very subtle but he is cunning, ruthless and, of course, absolutely evil. He may be loyal and capable as a soldier but even with limited perspicacity Othello must have realized that this thug has limited leadership qualities. Hence Othello’s failure to promote him and thus sealing his own fate at the hands of a man whom he considers honest.
Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona is a modern woman who first appears in blue jeans and sneakers. There is some incongruity between the descriptions she gets from the others and her actual appearance. She is a free-spirited woman who is in love with a man that her father disapproves of but the incongruity of her appearance and the descriptions we get of her works the least well in Hyrner’s production.
Othello lands in an army camp in Cyprus. We hear helicopters overhead, see soldiers dressed for war: fatigues, helmets, machine guns and backpacks. Roderigo and Cassio shoot each other and only at the end is there a sword and a knife produced. This Othello is set in the midst of a modern war.
Iago’s wife Emilia is a soldier who is assigned to look after Desdemona. Lyndsey Marshal gives a powerful performance in the role.
Tom Robertson as Roderigo is dumb, eager and innocent: a perfect tool for Iago. Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) is not as dense as Roderigo but he is no match for Iago.
The sets by Designer Vicki Mortimer are strictly army issue and perfectly suitable for the style of the production. The Duke’s office in the first act consists of a small table with a few chairs. Strictly utilitarian.
Hytner has one scene set in a bathroom. This is where Othello is driven beyond endurance and in fact collapses. He vomits in a toilet bowl and a furious Bianca (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) chases Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) into the men’s room. A brilliant move by Hytner that works realistically and metaphorically to emphasize Othello’s complete degradation.
Hytner is able to put Othello in a war zone with a convincing portrait of army life. It is the sort of production that one would never think could work even after seeing many different interpretations of the play. He pulls it off with some superb acting and scenic designs.
Othello by William Shakespeare opened on April 23, 2013 and continues at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/