Much has been made of Sir Nicholas Hytner returning to his beginnings as the Director of the National Theatre, again casting Adrian Lester in the eponymous role of a Shakespeare play. In 2003, Lester essayed Henry V in a ‘War on Terror’ context. Now, in a barnstorming staging of what is possibly Shakespeare’s most outwardly dramatic play, the modern military setting has returned, but without the specificity. It’s not important what war they’re fighting; the point is, the characters of Othello are stranded in an unfamiliar setting, creating a context of insecurities and tensions. There’s no political commentary here.
If anything, the play is solipsistic; it should be, to extract maximal drama from the intense, knotty plights of the various characters. Issues of race are downplayed completely, with several Asians and Africans among the cast; throughout the play, the word ‘Moor’ is spoken as if it were as unloaded as ‘man’ or ‘guy’. This de-emphasis of Othello’s race mitigates his outsider-identity, suggesting that the only factors in his fall are Iago and his own Achilles’ heel, and it changes his relationship with the other characters. Desdemona is not attracted to him because of his ‘exoticism’ or unique physiognomy, but because he’s charming and alluring. His extraction has no bearing on anyone; he is brought down solely by his own blindness and the Machiavellian machinations of another.
All this successfully makes the play seem contemporary. Vicki Mortimer’s design is a key part of this; entire sets slide stealthily in and out of view, while brutalist walls hem the characters in, creating a claustrophobic setting of menace and paranoia. One inspired scene locates the pivotal juncture that leads to Othello’s line “How shall I murder him, Iago?” in a toilet, befitting of the base events that occur there; the scene featuring Cassio’s inebriation is completely convincing and strangely modern; and the minimalism of the wedded couple’s bedroom reflects a psychology stripped to its most primal elements.
It’s a primal play, but Lester’s performance begins understatedly. He inhabits the character charmingly, but we don’t get a sense from the beginning that we are dealing with a man of primal forces. Lester plays him almost as a very successful everyman, when in fact Othello is anything but an everyman. Even if we disregard his race, his hamartia (jealousy, if not also gullibility) prevents him from being an ordinary character. Therein lies the flaw in Lester’s interpretation: a superb and convincing first half gives way to a less believable second, in which Lester goes over-the-top in his attempts to bring out the preternatural darkness and danger in Othello’s heart. There are inspired spots – I am reminded of Lester bestially sniffing the bed to detect a whiff of Cassio – but ultimately, the emotional pay-off is not as strong as one might expect.
Like the overall excellent Lester, the much-lauded Rory Kinnear also normalises his character. Kinnear’s Iago is not driven by “motiveless malignity”, but by a bitterness and desire for revenge. His references to having been cuckolded do not come across as mere excuses, convenient pegs on which to hang his nihilism; he genuinely has suspicions that fester inside him. His delivery of his last lines, “From this time forth I never will speak word”, paints Iago as a petulant, hurt child. He is recognisably human, and even lingers at the play’s end, staring dead-eyed at a bed loaded with lifeless bodies. By the end, Kinnear’s very human Iago has nothing to look forward to, his hands in chains, his plans in tatters before him. Kinnear paints him as by turns vengeful, churlish, funny, exultant, defensive, and – by the end – remorseful. If his bitterness were a little less virulent, and if his estuary accent a little more convincing, his Iago would be utterly believable.
Otherwise, the acting is uniformly good; plaudits should go to Olivia Vinall (who brings Desdemona to vivacious life), Lyndsey Marshal (a real, loving, embittered Emilia) and Jonathan Bailey (a strong, likeable Cassio), while Tom Robertson gives us a very funny Roderigo. Hytner has produced a gripping, imaginative, subtle staging of Othello, whose biggest asset is its humanity. We really care about the characters, even Iago, which – given that the text slightly over-eggs the pudding when it comes to drama – is no mean feat.