Othello at National Theatre

Michael’s been to National Theatre to see Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Othello.

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My problem with Othello is that it never seems believable. Why would this great man so quickly believe that his new bride is cheating on him, what makes him so primed for jealousy?

The twist of Nicholas Hytner’s production is that it gives contemporary context, a context that fills in gaps, and gives credence to the ‘green eyed monster’.

Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of the duplicitous Iago is perfect. Slighted by his lack of promotion and frustrated by his loveless marriage, his ambition is not to better himself but to destroy those around him.

If I’m honest, I don’t know if I’d have come to this opinion myself, or whether I was heavily influenced by Jonathan Shaw’s excellent programme note. But I did pay my three pounds, I did read his essay and now I can’t remove his thinking from my head.

Hytner’s Cyprus is a military compound, with characters dressed in the fatigues we’ve seen through a generation of Middle Eastern conflicts. We instantly understand the heat, the tensions, the claustrophobia and the pent-up rage of men, expecting battle, ‘reduced’ to peace-makers.

Adrian Lester was eminently believable as the Moor who’d come through the ranks to achieve respect through conflict but who would always be an outsider to polite society.

As a life-long soldier his value system is entirely military. His decision making lacks subtlety and he struggles to reconcile his battlefield persona with that of politician or husband.

Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of the duplicitous Iago is perfect. Slighted by his lack of promotion and frustrated by his loveless marriage, his ambition is not to better himself but to destroy those around him. Shakespeare’s plotting is pretty clumsy but Kinnear’s timing and subtlety make it believable.

When Othello’s young bride, Desdemona (brilliant played by Olivia Vinall), arrives at the base, she unsettles her husband’s stability. Ignoring the line of command she pleads directly for the case of Cassio (who’d been stripped of rank for a drunken brawl). For Othello, added to the whisperings of Iago, this is the final proof of her infidelity; why else would she seek to undermine his authority?

The final act, the bedroom scene, had moments of true tension and gasps from the audience. But again, I’m afraid I lost patience with Shakespeare (and Hytner). The full rage of this powerhouse of a man took several attempts to strangle his demur Desdemona. Five minutes later he stabbed himself in the stomach and died instantly, as did my suspense of disbelief.

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