THEATRE REVIEW: Othello

directed by Nicholas Hytner

Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

14 July 2013

until 5 Oct 2013

National Theatre Live Trailer (courtesy of National Theatre)
 

I’ll admit it: in the past, I’ve struggled with Othello. Never having seen it on stage, reading it on the page fell rather short of summoning up its wrought emotion and passion that I’d heard so much about. That all changed on this Sunday afternoon. This is absolute proof of what I’ve always said: that reading Shakespeare will always, inevitably, miss the mark somewhat — it’s written to be performed, and the cast of this National Theatre production deliver one hell of a performance.

The aggressive, pumping music that builds around the auditorium of the Olivier Theatre sets up the driving pulse of this forceful show. During the first few scenes, those audience members unfamiliar with the play are in danger of getting lost, but once the production gets into its stride you can’t help but be swept along in its imperious and earthy power.

The setting of the modern military base sets up and follows through on all the vital aspects of the plot in an incredibly neat way – the comradeship that is necessary for Othello to believe Iago’s lies, the violence always simmering near the surface, the marked fragility of Desdemona next to the soldiers, the importance of rank and hierarchy that provokes such envy… There is never a moment in which the play feels squeezed into this mould; rather, it seems a perfect fit. Yet at the same time it illuminates this oft-delivered script in surprising and new ways, which the cast grasp and take forward with relish, finding comedy in this tale of jealousy, bitterness and revenge.

Adrian Lester takes on the title role with relish, delivering a stirring performances with subtleties of every feeling: forceful, passionate, brutal, pained – his emotion burned out from the stage. Quite simply, he was everything you could ask for from your Othello. Yet Rory Kinnear (as Iago) is more than you could possibly want. His staggeringly good performance steals the show, being appropriately dastardly and brilliantly two-faced; yet it is his sardonic humour that puts Kinnear’s own stamp on the role, as his bitter sarcasm raises many a laugh – and let’s face it, it’s not a play where there is usually much to laugh about. Shifting effortlessly between smooth lies and shuddering hatred for Othello, this is a masterful performance. His on-stage chemistry with Lester was brittle with sparky emotion, but it is his exchanges with Roderigo (Tom Robertson) that show off this talent for comedy. While Robertson’s rather pathetic posh-boy act may have been an easy route to a laugh, the characterisation also establishes the necessary hierarchy of power with ease.

Elsewhere, Broadchurch‘s Jonathan Bailey shows surprising mettle as Cassio, presenting light-hearted humour but also deep pathos that catches the audiences off-guard, as an innocent caught up in the machinations of Iago. Newcomer Olivia Vinall makes for a spirited yet suitably naive Desdemona, her girlishness standing out amongst the camouflage of the army. Particularly impressive is Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia: fiery yet nuanced, she starts off rather in the background but capitalises on her character’s plot arc to blaze into the heart of the gory action in the final scenes.

The large stage of the Olivier Theatre is turned into a well-crafted set that conjures up the claustrophobic intensity of the army camp and the box like sets which glide on and off stage neatly set up the interlocking arms of Iago’s plan, also helping to focus the audience’s eye on this expanse of stage.

Nicholas Hynter’s production may have a rather long running time, but the audience are gripped from start to finish. There is earthy, raw emotion here, but it does not lose the grandeur of Shakespearean tragedy: Hytner has struck the perfect balance with his faultless cast. The final moments capture a devastating futility as Othello finally comprehends his wife’s innocence and the utter waste of life which can not be undone. Unmissable.

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