Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre)

Over to the National last week for Nicholas Hytner’s modern version of ‘Othello’, set in the present-day army but keeping the majority of the text as Shakespeare intended.

Adrian Lester, a fine stage performer who has played Hamlet for Peter Brook and Bobby in the musical Company for Sam Mendes, is probably best known now for the TV series ‘Hustle’. His Othello doesn’t have the majesty of an Olivier or a Willard White (both classic stage-screen Othellos), but his modern general appears bored with the casual racism of his regiment and enamoured of his new young wife, the ‘gentle Desdemona’.

Rory Kinnear, whose career has ranged so far from screen appearances in ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Black Mirror’ to a National Hamlet, is a mean and devious Iago, with a lower middle-class swagger, crude and bitter. How his peers can view him as an honest man remains a mystery, and although he is good, I would have liked to have seen a bit more definition between his actions when with those he deceived, and his confidences with the audience when in soliloquy, but all in all, his is a good portrayal of this complex character.

There are gems in the supporting performances. Olivia Vinali as Desdemona and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia (an enlisted squaddie in uniform) are memorable, and Jonathan Bailey is a strong Cassio. Less successful is Tom Robertson as Roderigo, too much the fool to be believable, but even he has his moments, as do the smaller roles like Brabantio (William Chubb).

My main issue with the modern setting of this production is that the main plot point of Desdemona making a grievous error in marrying outside of her race doesn’t have an impact other than making the insults (‘thick-lips’, ‘black ram’) sound inspired by racism. Neither would a modern soldier be permitted to take his wife into an area of combat. But these are small points.

A good production, and still powerful when a silent and unrepentant Iago stares at the bed loaded with death that he has caused in the play’s closing moments.