Othello @ National Theatre, LondonTragedy

  • Paul Edmondson
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Othello directed by Nicholas Hytner, The National Theatre, London, 2013.

NT Othello 2013

If my memory serves me correctly, then all of Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespeare productions I have seen have been in modern-dress. Occasionally the need to find a visual, contemporary cultural idiom has been unsuccessful. In 2002, Hytner’s setting of the long pastoral scenes of The Winter’s Tale at a Glastonbury-style festival, for example, alienated some of the audience and ignored the significance of Shakespeare’s community of sheep-shearers celebrating their economic basis. A decade later, and Timon on Athens’s resolutely urban rant in a rubbish dump during the second half made impossible any romantic longing for the vastness of nature. But when Hytner’s insistence on presenting a modern visual equivalent works then the effect is no less than life-giving. It allows you to see and enjoy Shakespeare as a new work, as a fresh and life-enhancing voice fit and, yes, necessary for our own times.

Hytner’s Othello left me thinking that I never again need to see ‘traditonal’ Shakespeare, or quasi-historical, non-specific Shakespeare, still less an eclectic, post-modern, or ‘trans-historical’ Shakespeare. It was a finely nuanced and instantly memorable production made up of wonderfully contrasting energies and totally believable performances. The modernistaion at work here was thorough and restrained. The time was now and it bristled with modern sexuality, gender, and politics. There were no irritating gimmicks for the sake of it (no i-pads, mobile phones, or facetious sportiness); no stage-space wasted with double-glazed patio doors or swimming-pools. The moderinsation here was spare and unfussy and primarily served the story-telling rather than drawing too much attention to individuals’ characterisation. Instead there were a succession of believable social worlds: the night-club or pub out of which Iago and Roderigo burst at the beginning; the exterior of Brabanzio’s grand house; the Cabinet-like meeting room of the Duke; the soldiers’ mess where Cassio is made drunk; the male toilet in which the eaves-dropping scene with Iago, Cassio and Bianca is played out (while Othello observes from one of the cubicles); and the utility-style bedroom, Othello and Desdemona’s temporary lodging on Cyprus.

This modern setting allowed me to appreciate afresh just how much the dramatic texture of Othello relies on homosocial behaviour. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca really are isolated and contrasting voices in the military-driven world of Cyprus. The brawl that escalates around the drinking scene grew out of a genuine sense of the men relaxing and celebrating after their defeat of the Turkish enemy. Othello’s striking of Desdemona brought with it, as it should, a moment of scandal and embarrassment within the army’s social code of honour. And, when they weren’t socialising, the corps of soldiers seemed genuinely to be occupied with their duties, on their way to them, just off-stage, in a way that heightened a sense of focus on the main action, the domestic and sexual tragedy.

Rory Kinnear’s Iago was admirably restrained. He spoke the lines trippingly, but was not afraid to amplify words and phrases as the rhetoric of the part demands, ‘put money in thy purse’ for example. He spoke the lines with a modern idiom that made him at one with the production’s design. Iago has moments of still observance and Kinnear used these, as it were, to absorb everything he was hearing . You knew that it was all feeding his ‘own peculiar end’, for example when he stood stage-right in the far corner of Cabinet-like room listening to the Duke and the all-too-believable racism of Branbanzio in act one, scene three. Kinnear’s Iago bristled with all the charm of a natural leader for the unfortunate Roderigo, seemed business-like and brisk with Cassio, and had clearly quietly objectified and taken for granted his wife Emilia long ago. There was no marriage there, only a series of selfish transactions on both sides. With Othello he convincingly put over the appearance of being subordinate, at one point apparently getting on with some dull labour at his computer screen, whilst effortlessly pointing up all the casual suggestions in Shakespeare’s script – the hints, the sudden images – that poison Othello’s mind. He was charismatic during his soliloquies but never charming, speaking his mind honestly whilst at the same time being able to place the contours of evil in the part. His sudden ‘I hate the Moor’, for example, allowed us to glimpse his gnawed innards; it was angry, attacking, memorably frightening and not to be pitied.

In contrast was Adrian Lester’s Othello: all warmth, immediacy, and trusting commitment, an Othello made no less romantic by the restrained modernistaion of the design. He appeared first, sharp-suited, exuding a relaxed authority which is combined with a quiet sexuality. Before the Duke’s council and Branbanzio Lester’s Othello was poised, speaking the poetry of his great speech ‘Her father loved me, oft invited me’ with an unconscious charm. Lester’s easy and gentle heightening of Shakespeare’s language characterised his performance throughout, making the part resonate with an engaging lyricism. He was very in love with Desdemona. Their re-union on Cyprus convinced everyone that there was something deeply genuine in their self-conscious celebration of the moment. It’s the first time I’ve properly noticed that part of the effect of Iago’s poisoning of Othello is to turn him into a schemer: Iago transforms him from a romantic who acts on impulse into a plotting neurotic, as well as a tragic puppet desperately seeking approval. It was the wide-eyed hunger with which Lester’s Othello stared across the bed, presumably for signs of Cassio’s semen, that encapsulated how far Lester had moved away from  ‘our noble general Othello’ (‘Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!’).

There was nothing passive about Olivia Vindall’s Desdemona. She brought to the role a fully-realised sexuality and a femininity which was attractive because it wasn’t trying to satisfy the obvious patriarchal demands of the very male-dominated which she has to inhabit. It made her vibrantly present to the desires of Rodrigo and allowed her to reflect the casual flirtations of Cassio. Lyndsey Marshall’s Emilia was the perfect and the more knowing companion for her. She complimented Desdemona’s innocence with a winning matter-of-factness, standing back to watch her mistress desperately tear off the bed-sheets in a moment that seemed to signal Desdemona’s rites of passage to another marriage that was already starting to die. Both of them shared the singing of the ‘Willow song’; both of them needed to mourn their forsakenness in love.

It’s the hallmark of an excellent production when you feel suffocated yourself by Othello’s murdering of Desdemona, wanting to cry out to stop it. I have never seen an Othello murder Desdemona like Lester’s did. She seemed to take a while to suffocate, kicking and beating his back, then, on his removing the pillow, she started to come round. He had to strangle her instead, ignoring Emilia’s knocking, but knowing it must be answered soon, and too late.

And then all of the intense collapse of almost everything else, all played out in the spareness of the, by now, all too familiar utilitarian bedroom: Emilia’s bravery and daring to speak out; Othello’s wounding of Iago; Iago’s murder of Emilia; Othello’s suicide and dying upon a kiss; Ludovico and Gratiano ensuring the beginning of the Venetian state’s reaction; X’s Cassio on crutches, wide-eyed, almost disbelieving. When, just before Iago was taken off at the end, he momentarily stopped and stared at the ‘tragic loading of this bed’ it was like seeing a serial-killer blankly stare at something he wasn’t sure was his masterpiece or not.

Author: Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson