‘Othello’ at the National Theatre

2013-04-23 08.38.12I booked the tickets for the new production of Othello at the Olivier Theatre on the strength of the two lead actors, both of whom I’ve seen in other stage productions, and, even though I had recently decided, after sitting through some interminably dull Shakespeare in the last year or so, not to bother with any more of it.

And I’m very pleased that I did because I found the experience enthralling.  It hadn’t occurred to me before going, but I’ve never actually seen the play all the way through before; I’ve seen bits of the Olivier film, but never been engaged enough to stay the course, I’ve seen the opera on stage, and spent most of the time worrying that the blacked up lead singer had pink ears.  So as an Othello novice I cannot compare this to any other production.  What I can say though is that the time passed so quickly that I was astonished to see at the interval that it was already 9pm.

Set in modern dress, the production highlights the army context for the play, in a ‘Cyprus’ of concrete bunkers and prefabricated washrooms, where everyone apart from Desdemona and Rodrigo are decked out in desert camouflage and boots, and the imminent arrival of a character on stage is announced by the thud and thrum of helicopter blades.  It is a world where the primary relationships are between men; where the bond between battle mates is one of absolute trust, and where women are made of different stuff.  It is perhaps the only way to make sense of the way Othello behaves for a contemporary audience.

The relationship between Othello and Iago is the central fascination, Othello so trusting, and believing his lieutenant absolutely, and Iago so eaten by anger at being passed over for promotion that he will stoop to any betrayal.  I found the marriage between Othello and Desdemona less compelling: they are so manifestly ill matched and this is highlighted by Desdemona’s smallness beside all the men (in fact all the actresses in this production look oddly diminutive).  In her first appearance during a council of war in a corporate looking meeting room, she looks like a child, beside the be-suited men.  And later, when she travels to Cyprus to be with the army, she is dressed in light cotton pedal pushers and bright t-shirts, an easy target when surrounded by troups in camouflage.  She has no real understanding of the man she has married or the world he occupies.

In an essay extract in the programme written by Nicholas Hynter, the director, he makes the observation that Shakespeare’s plays only makes sense once they have been interpreted and inhabited by actors, and the actors in this production definitely made this for me.  Rory Kinnear is charismatic and brilliant as Iago, confiding in us, the audience, how is plan at revenge is formulating, and then celebrating when only we are watching as each development goes his way.  Adrian Lester, conveys the pride of the outsider with low beginnings who has risen so far to the top that he is in an environment that he doesn’t understand, and in love with the idea of a woman, rather than the woman herself.

It was thrilling to be in a packed theatre when the audience, rapt and silent at the tragic final scenes, burst into whooping and applause for the curtain call.  It was the best evening I’ve had the theatre for ages…… so I may have to refine my rules on Shakespeare, maybe it’s only the comedies that make me want to cut my own throat……

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  1. louisewalters12

     /  April 23, 2013

    I loved Othello when I studied it for an OU course, but I’ve never seen it performed, really ought to! I’m not keen on the comedies either, especially Twelfth Night, yawn. I took my oldest two children to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago at Stratford-on-Avon and we all really enjoyed it.

    • I can highly recommend this production if you get a chance over the summer. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my dislike of the comedies – sometimes the need to shout ‘for goodness sake just get on with it’ can be almost overwhelming. My particular bug bear is Much Ado….!

      • Kate

         /  April 23, 2013

        Ha, I love Much Ado – my favourite of the comedies – but I do understand what you mean.

        Saw Othello last night and it wasn’t perfect: the Iago/Emilia relationship didn’t seem fully realised to me, likewise Emilia’s character generally. However, it was extremely good and utterly worth it for Rory Kinnear’s performance alone, which was mesmerising. Adrian Lester was also great, but unfortunately I felt the show became a little less interesting every time Iago left the stage.

        A huge thumbs up for the amazing set too.

      • I think I agree with you in that none of the women seemed that important to the plot, but then as I’ve neither seen it nor read it before my ignorance protected me from worrying too much about Emilia. Rory Kinnear was hands down the best thing about it – but he couldn’t have done it without Adrian Lester as his ‘straight man’.

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