When it comes to battledress Shakespeare, it seems that Nicholas Hytner can do no wrong – particularly having already conquered London audiences with a production of Henry V. Hytner’s Henry, Adrian Lester, pairs up with the director once again in a brilliantly accomplished production that combines intuitive acting and modern military staging with electrifying results.
Nicholas Hytner and Vikki Mortimer (the designer) have reimagined Othello in a military camp, made up of Corimec shelters and concrete walls. These serve as the backdrop against which Shakespeare’s tense story of revenge and manipulation is played out. Othello slips effortlessly into a modern setting, which completely enables the plot without weighing it down with gimmicky props or irrelevant modernisms. The opening scene occurs outside a pub; Iago complaining to Roderigo with pints in hand. Othello, wearing combat dress, vows revenge in the grey functionality of the barracks loos; this set-up places heightened emotions within the realm of the everyday, the mundane – and does away with the thespian baggage with which Shakespearean tragedy traditionally comes.
The modern production has sceptical bloggers groaning, but Mortimer’s subtle staging is a military context with which we can thoroughly identify – through the familiar images of beige-coloured barracks and concrete yards seen frequently in the media, we also see a world where loyalty and a code of honour are ruling principles. Othello thus becomes much more of a play about people we recognise, visually and emotionally, than a play about Ye Olde English and classic tragedy. To make Othello even more of a play for the modern audience, Nick Powell’s irresistibly cool score of rock guitar and drums accompanies the deft scene changes, whose dark pulsating rhythm perfectly captures the mounting tension of the play.
Adrian Lester is brutally touching as Othello: his transition from affection to enraged paranoia is utterly convincing, swerving between paralytic sorrow and violent anger with heart-rending dexterity. Literally paralysed, Lester passes out face down in the barrack loos from overwrought anguish, a move that escapes the histrionic and achieves a powerful poignancy. A searingly memorable moment was when he slapped Desdemona in front of assembled troops, subsequently prowling along the line of soldiers as Desdemona wept; Lester’s Othello is comfortable in two worlds and when one of them is destroyed by suspicion he regresses to the violence of a front-line soldier.
Iago and Othello are two sides of the same coin; Othello’s rise in ranks and shiny new suit covering up an instinctive violence that blazes in Rory Kinnear’s Iago, pulled off with an Estuary accent that lends a rough bitterness to his soliloquies.
Lester’s unquestioning blind faith in Iago heightens Kinnear’s caustic malevolence, imbuing his supposedly honest façade with poisonous dramatic irony. Kinnear evokes a brutal determination in his loveless interactions with Emilia (Lyndsey Marshal), and in his triumphant wriggles alone onstage as his deviousness comes to fruition step by step. His Iago is a far cry from the archetypal Shakespearean villain, say Richard III, whom we love to hate. Rather, Kinnear evokes a wicked opportunism and malice that both alienate and completely captivate; we are never quite sure how we feel about Iago but are nonetheless enthralled.
Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona and Lester’s Othello interact with endearing and winking intimacy – perfectly poised between die-hard Romeo and Juliet love and old married couple. Vinall plays Desdemona with youthful energy, barely standing still until the last few scenes of the play where Lester’s violent coldness tragically stifles her lively affection. The bedroom scene, although starring a distracting pair of lace pants, is masterfully pulled off. Vinall blazes with desperation, and Lester compellingly traces the balance between murderous resignation and panicked regret; the moment everyone knows is coming is nonetheless played with shocking disarray and rawness.
Jonathan Bailey as Cassio is amiably posh and privileged, and raised several laughs with moments such as an indignant storm-out, quite resembling a penguin on speed. Yet Bailey quietened the whole theatre when the cheery, testosterone-fuelled drinking scene results in his demotion: Bailey reacts with touching anguish, hyperventilating and sobbing through his lines with convincing intensity. Less sympathetic is the hopelessly gullible Roderigo (Tom Robertson), strutting onto the stage with Made in Chelsea flair, complete with red chinos and loafers; both the audience and Iago know with gleeful certainty that he is a prime target for Iago’s working-class machinations.
The National Theatre’s Othello creates a production with all the trademarks of a gripping tragedy written by Shakespeare, but which makes you forget it is Shakespearean with a declamatory capital ‘S’. What is needed in modern Shakespeare productions, and in Shakespeare productions in general, is the story; not the stereotype. And this production tells one hell of a story.
Othello is showing at the National Theatre until the 5th October, with a live broadcast on the 26th September. More information and tickets can be found on the Theatre’s website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/othello