In Hytner’s modern production of Othello, it is only Brabantio, Desdemona’s father (played by William Chubb) who is racist and any jibe made at Othello’s skin colour causes a flinch to ripple across the stage. By making it clear that this Othello is not set in a racist society, Hytner removes one of the barriers that have, all too often, produced unsatisfactory, and over- simplified productions of this play. This gives the excellent cast greater freedom to unlock the more emotionally complex layers within the piece.
Two stunning performances from Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago provide the emotional centre which helps drive the show. Initially, it seems that Lester’s Othello will be too charming as we are introduced to him polished in a smart suit and flawlessly calm as Brabantio accuses him of ‘bewitching’ his daughter Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) into marriage. However, the true strength of Lester’s performance is not revealed until the second act, once Iago has convinced him that Desdemona has slept with his Lieutenant Michael Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) and, driven mad by jealousy, Lester uses his imposing physique to brawl, fit on the floor, spit and vomit; a broken man who we cannot help but pity.
Kinnear’s soliloquies are compelling, eloquently using Shakespearean English with the ease and familiarity of a first language. Iago uses the façade of ‘the- good- bloke- down- the- pub’ to conceal his devious scheming, thus allowing him to build a hilarious repartee with the audience. He makes us laugh and therefore we like him, thus twisting our sense of morality because we are egging him on to destroy Othello. He switches rapidly from joker to madman and in the final scene, his wide- eyed and open-mouthed stare onto the bed and the three deaths he has caused sends shivers down the spine. This is a chilling portrait of a man who is fascinated by his own capabilities of evil.
Other notable performances include Tom Robertson’s wonderfully posh, stupid Roderigo and Lyndsey Marshall’s hardened Emilia. Vinall’s Desdemona is eager to please, but flits about the stage without any sense of direction. The portrayal of her as naïve and childish doesn’t sit well with the Desdemona written in the text, who has natural purpose, drive and integrity.
The Oliver Theatre is enormous. The last Shakespeare play held here, 2012’s The Comedy of Errors failed to fill the space, trying to make up what it lacked in humour with an overly elaborate set. This is not an issue with Othello. The communication of the language is simple and effective, and therefore easy to understand by all of the audience members. Vicki Mortimer’s design plays with the vastness of the stage, as pokey box- rooms lit with nasty strip lighting are wheeled on, thus narrowing the audience’s focus into a tiny area of the space and creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia that fits with the play’s impossibly narrow time-frame. At times all of the set is removed, leaving you staggered at the true depth of the space, symbolic of the scope of the military operation that Othello is managing.
This Othello is another example of what will be Hytner’s legacy: making theatre accessible to all and is an example of the most effective type of Shakespeare production; one in which you forget the actors are speaking a four hundred year old language. Hytner currently has a track record of directing excellent productions, and it looks like he will leave the National Theatre in 2015 on an all- time- high.
Othello will be broadcast live to two hundred and fifty UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 26September 2013. For more information, visit www.ntlive.com. Othello is running at the Olivier Theatre until 18August 2013. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre’s website.