Othello – National Theatre

Blog #1

I rather like going to the National on a Sunday afternoon. It seems very relaxed; not a lot going on, nobody there unless they are going to a play, no platforms, music, debates, activities. Just lots of people going to see a play. Getting a ticket for the latest Nicholas Hyntner production of Othello has been difficult since the first rave reviews appeared, so this is hardly a hot off the press review. It would be so much more interesting as well if I disagreed with the majority. But no, it was a brilliant piece of acting from start to finish.


The change in the way Shakespeare is acted across my theatre-going life has been extraordinary. My earliest days saw great thespians projecting the poetry, throwing the couplets to the back of the theatre in grandiloquent soliloquies. How things have changed. These days you are only aware of the verse for a few moments before the natural speech rhythms wipe away any alien feel. Here Desdemona skips onto stage in jeans and T-shirt to snog her husband, who belatedly realises his men are staring at him, and an embarrassed sorry is signalled before the text kicks in. Othello is loud when he is angry, soft when he is calm, passionate when in love and (in this case) soft and crying as he realises what he has done. Iago, meanwhile punches the air like a footballer as Othello swallows his hooks, one after the other.


I wouldn’t say the modern setting was entirely without its problems. Afghanistan is not Cyprus, Desdemona’s presence is unconvincing – surely she needed to be more Kate Middleton, less Olivia Newton John - but in emphasising the military context of the play it worked for me. This is a male world of soldiers, fighting, drinking, macho culture. The last conspiratorial scene as Iago winds Othello up to breaking point is conducting in the men’s toilets, Cassius gets drunk in a raucous soldier’s bar. There are women in the ranks, but even Iago’s wife Emilia looks more soldier less woman, so Desdemona stands out as the only true feminine entity in the play. It also explains how Othello is so taken in; Iago is a comrade in the army, they have been to war together, he is a man you would trust with your life.


Othello always turns on the two principal actors; if there has been a better pairing than Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester I would have loved to see it. Kinnear has surely set the standard for Iago for a long time to come. Uncompromisingly vindictive, full of irrational hate, you may not understand him, but you can’t help but acknowledge the creative savagery of his hatred. He does not care who or what stands in his way in his determination to humble the Moor. He is intently aware of the sexual and emotional needs of others, but appears to have no recognition of them himself. There is nothing between him and Emilia at least from him. She is just another pawn to be used.


Lester’s Othello is equally impressive. He is open, honest, generous and charming. He loves his men, and they love him, yet he can charm the politicians at whim as well. But he is quick to anger, quick to judge, lacks reflection and hasty to act. Once Iago has found the nerve, his unravelling is inevitable. Just as Iago plays the NCO to perfection, his physical presence is barely there at times, Othello is physically present at all times. Flirting with his wife, upturning tables in his office, bawling at his men. He is a big man, with a big presence and impact. The combination works wonderfully.


Had Desdemona even approached this level, I would be debating if this was not the finest Shakespeare I have ever seen. Sadly, as well as my production quibbles about her behaviour and attitude in the army base, I found her one dimensional, too naive, too young, too obvious. She did die well, I would agree, but really her level was so far below the others that it was slightly embarrassing. Lyndsey Marshal’s Emilia, on the other hand I enjoyed; she was always army, doing the courtier bit as part of her service, concerned for her mistress but never of Desdemona’s class. Her condemnation, when it came, was all the more powerful for it coming in the teeth of her personal loyalty to her husband as well as to her loyalty to her comrades.


Blog #2

Blog #3

Blog #4

Blog #5

Blog #6

Blog #7

Blog #8

Blog #9

Blog #10


Return to home page