National Theatre, Olivier Theatre
Performance Date: 3 August 2013, In rep until 5 October 2013
The opening scene of Nicholas Hytner’s modernised “Othello” did not bode well with the enormous Olivier stage set as the mundane exterior of a pub. Two guys spill outside, including Iago (Rory Kinnear), plotting in what I would have described as a Michael Caine English accent, but which I learn is known as Estuarine. A brief fear – is this hugely-hyped, sold-out production which I have heard so much about going to be Eastenders does Shakespeare?
I should not have worried. From the moment Adrian Lester as Othello steps on stage, Shakespeare’s tragic story in this contemporary setting starts to make sense.
Lester’s Othello is eloquent, commanding and admirable, just the type of man you would try desperately to impress – either by following him into a hopeless battle or enticing him to fall for you. Lester excellently evokes the deterioration in Othello from confident commander to a man wracked by jealousy and compelled to violence, to one broken by grief and regret.
After the slight mis-fire of the pub scene, the rest of the play is set in all-too realistic locations: a boardroom, a Middle East-type army compound all strip lights and concrete walls. The set changes roll in and out seamlessly, and the accompanying music builds anticipation. The use of a contemporary military context for the play works well – making Iago’s betrayal even more abhorrent in the chain of command. Even issues of race seem to recede into the background in this imagining. On the other hand, this modern setting does make the importance of the Moor’s handkerchief token of love quite a stretch.
Desdemona’s (Olivia Vinall’s), weak-kittenish eagerness to please, is a little irritating. Far more interesting is the fiery Lyndsey Marshall as Olivia, imagined as part of the troop of soldiers. For me, the coupling of Kinnear’s accent with Shakespearean language (and perhaps my vantage point from the cheap seats) made it difficult sometimes to understand the nuances of his schemes. (Every now and then I would have flashes of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s impersonations of Michael Caine…) But even if the speeches were clouded, Kinnear’s bearing and gestures were wonderfully odious, building psychological tension through a smirk or a tap of the laptop.
This long, tragic play whips past thanks to excellent direction from Hytner – “Othello” is a memorable interpretation of a classic.