Sunday, 8 September 2013


National Theatre
23 April – 5 October 2013

Rory Kinnear (Iago), Adrian Lester (Othello). Photo by Johan Persson.

In failing to make sense of the key characters, this contemporary Othello is a relative failure, though that doesn’t significantly reduce the powerful impact of this tragedy in the theatre.

Since FR Leavis argued that Othello is clearly supposed to be a villain, the older view, which rather took the hero’s own position that he loved not wisely, but too well, has been harder to maintain, at least in the theatre.

I think this is partly due to our mistrust of heroism. In Nicolas Hytner’s updated production, the Venetian general is in the British army, in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and consequently wears combat fatigues. This pretty much guarantees he will be seen as ambiguous, if not downright villainous, as soon as he wears them.

Luckily this isn’t how we first see him, after he has successfully wed Desdemona. He wears a smart suit, looks attractive and seductive, although not necessarily heroic.

I don’t think the creative team intended to confirm Leavis’ interpretation, but that only reveals the pitfalls of modern productions of this drama. The central conceit, that a supposedly great man kills his wife in a rage of sexual jealousy over a handkerchief, might be thought almost too absurd, though it is clear to me that the author was fully serious, including stressing Othello’s genuine greatness.

I take the drama as an attempt to illustrate the degradation of a great man and the sickening reality of murder. Iago, who tends to dominate the drama with his multiple soliloquies, is too quick-witted a creation if we assume Othello is credulous. A malevolent buffoon does not need an honest Iago to lead him by the nose.

Undoubtedly Shakespeare did not help a modern producer or actor in trying to convey his central character’s positive qualities. At the beginning, and then pathetically at the end, Othello reaches great poetic heights, but otherwise he is perhaps undercharacterised.

Gravitas, charisma; these are the essentials in playing Othello, and sadly these are not parts of Adrian Lester’s performance. There are many fine details, but these tend towards the Leavis view, as when he essentially bullies his men after striking Desdemona in public. Conversely, he makes too little of some of the greatest lines, such as ‘the pity of it Iago’.

Rory Kinnear’s Iago is better, but this is very often the case. A very blokey performance, which makes sense in context, though as usual, it is not easy to see why he is willing to risk so much to destroy Othello, given that he is cunning enough to exploit people like Roderigo with no-one the wiser.

Ideally, an Iago would somehow make his absolute loathing of the moor obvious in almost every scene, and Kinnear doesn’t do that – in fact, he doesn’t convey convincing hatred at any point. This seems a mistake.

As if to compound criticism of Shakespeare’s characterisation in this drama, Desdemona is also a fairly passive thing, which makes her on stage murder all the more shocking, even now.

But the actress can grant her greater presence than does Olivia Vinall, who creates a convincingly flirtatious teenager, but one who is merely petulant in response to her husband’s mistreatment, thereby avoiding the possibilities of being either noble or pitiable.

After all this, Emilia’s characterisation would surely be unimportant, except she somehow connives with Iago over the without handkerchief connecting this to later events. I didn’t see this explained through Lyndsey Marshal’s portrayal, though Hytner highlights the fateful handkerchief theft appropriately.

The production has many good touches, such as Othello’s epilepsy taking place in a lavatory. And the final scene is indestructibly powerful and affecting. Finding fault in a performance of Shakespeare is something to do upon reflection, for in the theatre I am simply grateful for the overwhelming experience.

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