“Demand me nothing: what you know, you know”
Though I’ve been to the theatre a fair bit over the last few years and taken in more than my fair share of Shakespeare, the distribution across his plays has been far from equitable. I’ve seen more Macbeths, Twelfth Nights and Midsummer Night’s Dreams that I can shake a stick at, yet my first and only Othello to date was in Sheffield back in 2011. Not having previously read or studied it, it was never a play that had really appealed and though I really did enjoy that trip to the Crucible, I can’t say I was dying to see it again. But this high-profile National Theatre modern-day update, featuring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, proved impossible to resist, not least with preview prices meaning the £48 seats were going for £20 (and with this running time, it was money well spent).
The Venice of the opening is a non-descript place and it is only with the departure to Cyprus, and specifically here a British base on the island, that the military aesthetic of the production comes to full fruition. Vicki Mortimer’s design captures the sun-blasted stone of the Mediterranean location and the claustrophobically stuffy air of the prefab offices and rooms of the military base, with the only real nod to the geopolitics of the modern-day setting a map of the Middle East behind a desk. The production wears the updating quite lightly: on the one hand, nothing feels too forced to fit in with the concept but on the other, it doesn’t always seem like the most inspired. The bland nature of so much of the setting – the generic office, the shared bathroom, the depersonalised bedroom – mutes something of the tragedy, there’s little grandeur on display to match the heights of the emotion.
Where the fireworks do come is from the acting though. Adrian Lester may possibly be a little too young and downright handsome for Othello (I’d love to see him tackle the role in 10 years time) but he attacks the verse with an exciting directness, all bold primary colours. And this contrasts marvellously with the much greater subtleties of Rory Kinnear’s Iago, his palette demonstrating many shades and textures but above all a malevolence that is all the more frightening for clearly coming from a place of fierce intelligence. There’s something of a mischievousness about him too, garnering more laughter than one might have expected from this play from an audience who seemed oddly determined to find as much of it as funny as they could.
Hytner gathers a strong cast around his leads and one which feels pleasingly diverse rather than being entirely populated by NT stalwarts. Jonathan Bailey (I’m guessing he didn’t kill Danny Latimer…) makes a vibrantly persuasive Cassio, a passionate (would-be) career soldier; Tom Robertson’s Roderigo is all Chelsea loafers and no socks, a civilian interloper in this military environment; and Olivia Vinall’s fresh-faced naïveté works a treat for this Desdemona, oblivious to the dangerous swells around her and ultimately almost as much an intruder as Roderigo.
I was a little ambivalent about Lyndsey Marshal’s Emilia though, cast here as one of the soldiers on the base. Except she is rarely allowed to be a soldier as the demands of the role mean she is constantly having to trot off stage holding Desdemona’s hand and offering comfort instead of doing her job in the military corps which more or less makes it a pointless amendment. And since I bought so utterly into Alexandra Gilbreath’s revelatory interpretation of the role in Sheffield, there’s a comparative lack of any great detailing in Emilia and Iago’s relationship here, no sense of history, no reason to believe this modern woman would kowtow so easily to his demands. Marshal does deliver the anguished feeling of the final scenes with a brilliantly raw torment and it’s not her fault that my only other Emilia was by one of my favourite ever actresses in one of the best performances of last year.
Maybe it’s true that it’s never as good as the first time or maybe that production in Sheffield just spoke more to what I wanted from the play. Either way, I found that there was more to admire than to love about this version on the South Bank, notwithstanding Kinnear’s electrifying performance. It may not have dragged due to a swift pace throughout but I certainly felt its length at certain moments where some judicious trimming might have come in handy. But the whoops at the curtain call and partially ovating audience suggest that mine was not the majority opinion and it will be interesting to see and hear how people who have seen many more productions of the play react to it and where they rank it in terms of its interpretation. For me though, it’s an honourable second out of two.