This most excellent, enthralling, powerful version of Othello by the National Theatre (NT) is superb. Part of the NT Live series celebrating 50 years of the National Theatre in London this production is bleak, brutal and shattering. Under Nicholas Hytner’s stunning, sharp direction the play has been updated to the present and the play reset to two main locations, a large city corporate office and an army barracks. In this version the usual idea that this Shakespeare’s play is dominated by racism is glossed over, rather Hytner heavily concentrates instead on military details and hidden ironies.
The set design has wonderful, coldly effective sliding platforms/doors to frame various scenes, a violent arena in which even the scene changes have an aggressive feel. The harsh flood lit sets of concrete and barbed wire slide out from the back of the stage, moving towards the audience like tanks. Staccato bursts of music pump them along, pushing one scene into the next with the sliding/revolving. Helicopters whirr overhead. So central did Hytner consider the military context that he hired Jonathan Shaw, who served in the army for more than 30 years, as an adviser.
Hytner is blessed with a tremendous cast especially in the two very strong male leads of Othello and Iago.
Adrian Lester gives a towering, magnificent performance as a splendid Othello. Lester was last seen at the National in the title role of Nicholas Hytner’s production of “Henry V.” His screen work includes five series of the BBC’s “Hustle.” His theatre work also includes “Red Velvet” (2012 Critics’ Circle Best Actor Award), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Company” (Olivier Award), the title role in Peter Brook’s production of “Hamlet” and Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s “As You Like It.” . At the beginning he is a well loved top general , a great military man. We see how his trust, and being caught in Iago’s devilish web of machinations, represents his downfall .Charismatic and dignified his speech, his first entrance is sunny and orotund. Men would follow him with his golden voice anywhere.
As he murders Desdemona and suicides his eloquence is marvellous and almost terrifying .His jealousy is so intense it makes him vomit. When he succumbs to jealousy he seethes with the sort of fury that causes him to flip a table with a single flick of his wrist…punch holes in the wall.
Rory Kinnear as ‘honest’ Iago is also superb, giving a cold, malevolent performance as Othello’s nemesis . Kinnear’s film and TV work includes “Southcliffe,” “Black Mirror: The National Anthem,” and “Skyfall, Quantum of Solace.” His work for the National includes “The Last of the Haussmans” with Julie Walters and the title role in “Hamlet” (Evening Standard Best Actor Award), both of which were broadcast by National Theatre Live.
Kinnear’s Iago is ambitious and manipulative with a deadly ,cynical intelligence wearing a false, charming social mask until just before the very end. Kinnear surprises by shocking the audience into laughing at his bitter ingenuity, rather like Richard 111 ,with the monologues drawing us in with even great clarity .Iago air-punches and victory dances when he gets one up on the object of his scorn and hate, plants his feet aggressively apart and helps himself to the water he ‘offered’ Othello when Othello collapses. Iago tries to control his obsessive hate but in the end his hate controls him.
Innocent,wronged Desdemona was enchantingly played by Olivia Vinall. In this version she is shown as young, blonde, pretty and determined to have her way as she is desperately in love with Othello. But their two worlds are quite separate – will their marriage survive? She is frail and tiny, chaste and rather out of place in the harsh world of the barracks.
Emilia, Iago’s wife (Lyndsey Marshal), is here shown as more Desdemona’s friend rather than her maid. Generally she is rather quiet but, forceful and angry towards the end when protesting Desdemona’s innocence. When Emilia discovers the depths of Iago’s deception and betrayal she becomes a passionate mouse that roars.
Jonathan Bailey (recently seen in ITV’s Broadchurch) plays Cassio as very charming but with a deep hidden flaw that Iago exploits, and Tom Robertson’s Roderigo is a believable handsome, elegant dandy.
Also of interest is the short film screened at interval on the pressures of army life and the importance of trust between comrades that sheds light on why Othello so wholly believed Iago’s claims against Desdemona.
For once, Othello’s credulity is convincing and Iago’s hatred whilst not having a justification does have a possible cause. The tension between the two leads is terrifically calibrated. A stirring, chilling and thrilling production that transfers wonderfully from stage to screen.
OTHELLO, part of the NTLive series screened at selected cinemas on the weekend of the 12th and 13th October, 2013. Running time 3 hours and 40 minutes without interval. For more information visit,-www.ntlive.com