September 27, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Othello (National Theatre) @ NT Live

When digging out my ticket for the NT Live screening of Othello at Nottingham’s Broadway, I had to go into my archived email from four months ago. Booking for these screenings has become even more competitive, and as I tweeted afterwards I was disappointed to see so few young people in the audience. The extreme success of the NT Live project means that it now has the cache of the ridiculous advance booking accorded to RSC shows and the Donmar celebrity seasons, where only those people able to organise their social calendars several months in advance (to wit: academics, absolute fans and the retired) can get in. I do hope that the potential of these screenings to reach a broader demographic is being better realised in other cinemas.

Nicholas Hytner’s new production was a double-header between Adrian Lester and recent National regular Rory Kinnear, and for the first time I was disappointed in Kinnear’s performance. As Iago, Kinnear adopted a deep, gruff and clipped London accent, designed to evoke the thug-made-good background of his interpretation and distinguish him vocally from the clear RP of Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio and the soft, rich voice of Lester’s Othello. Yet while this worked well to establish character, it limited Kinnear’s vocal range to a tremulous and even petulant tone of complaint that he struggled to vary. While Kinnear’s performance hinted at Iago’s depths, particularly in his triumphant punches of the air when plans came to fruition (thus reminding us of the character’s fallibility) and his silent sneers, particularly when prodding the epileptic Othello’s prostrate body with his foot, vocally the performance was static and eventually dull. In a production this powerful this wasn’t a catastrophic problem, but I missed the variety and dexterity that has characterised Kinnear’s other recent roles.

Hytner, as with his Henry V of a few years back, found contemporaneity for the play in the modern theatre of war. An early feint saw Act One set in the streets of London, beginning with Roderigo and Iago falling out of a pub and moving to street brawls between thugs. From there to an unspecified Middle Eastern country, where maps of Saudi Arabia lined the walls of war-rooms and Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi’s Bianca was allowed through compound gates by bored guards. In one of the most illuminating NT Live interval features I’ve ever seen, the company talked about Jonathan Shaw’s contribution to the production as military adviser, capturing the pent-up frustrations and cabin fever of a deployed army who arrive in a foreign country and find there is no battle to fight. In the light of Shaw’s interview, the politics of Cassio (an office) mixing with the troops and the claustrophobic quarters of the camp made perfect sense for a play which, in light of this production, appears to be about disproportionate escalation in close quarters.

Key to this was the use of intimate sets and intimate camerawork, as if (to draw on the soon-to-be-published thoughts of Steve Purcell) the production had been designed with a filmic as well as theatrical sensibility. The scene of the Venetian council took place in a close conference room, where those standing had to push past those sitting around a situation table to reach the other side of the room, while others drew tea from an urn in the corner. In this claustrophobic setting, the grief of William Chubb’s Brabantio could not be ignored, he slumping at the side of the room and causing Othello and Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona to move awkwardly behind him, she trying to comfort her father while Othello tried to avoid touching him. The camerawork, meanwhile, allowed for focus on the face. As Othello described his wooing of Desdemona, the room became still and the camera drew slowly closer to Othello’s face, literally captivating the viewer until nothing could be seen or heard but Lester’s soft, compelling voice. The laughter of relief that followed the Duke’s proclamation that the story would have won his daughter too was just one indication of the magnetic power of Lester’s performance.

As perhaps the definitive Othello of our time, Lester took the character to places difficult to have expected. The close quarters of the barracks – an office for Othello and Iago, a bathroom for the scene of Othello’s epileptic fit and the overhearing scene, and most importantly the cramped, functional berth of Othello and Desdemona – could barely contain Othello’s passion, first in his lustful public display of affection for Desdemona upon arrival (interrupted by his self-awareness followed by a brisk barking of orders) and then his violent fury. Othello punched holes in walls, overturned tables, pulled at sinks and generally destroyed the environments, contained within representations of cargo containers, that buckled under his internal pressure. Although the gestures to the fates didn’t entirely fit with the setting, the important point here was the slow turn to an unquenchable rage, with eyes bulging expressively and voice evolving to a fast, frenetic wildness. Iago’s strength here was to become an immovable piece of furniture, set up early on in his silent and perfectly still presence in the council scene. Iago became the rock against which Othello could rail without damage to either, causing Othello finally to cling to Iago on the floor as they vowed fealty to one another.

The other aspect brought out by the modern military setting and the interval documentary was the role of trust in the modern army, where Othello’s gullibility became a result of the necessary reliance of comrades. This modern army troop included several women, most prominently Lyndsey Marshal’s remarkable Emilia, present throughout the drinking games and assigned by Othello to Desdemona’s aid. While this didn’t always ring true (it would have been interesting to see more of her clipped military style continue into the willow scene, for example), this had the effect of intensifying the scenes between Othello and Emilia (a superior officer roaring at his own private for being a bawd) and providing a context for the extraordinary power shown in the final scene, where despite her diminutive stature compared to the men in the room, her upright bearing and deep voice made her more than a match for her husband. The sight of Iago and Emilia staring each other down as she prepared to drop the bombshell of the handkerchief, each daring the other to strike first, was quite simply the tensest moment I have ever experienced in the theatre.

Emilia’s role as a soldier left Desdemona somewhat isolated, her flak vest over a dress marking her out on the arrival in Cyprus. Vinall’s Desdemona gave the lie to any interpretation of the character as feeble, she driving much of the relationship with Othello and bringing an energy to her scenes which left him frequently unable to get a word in. While this was sometimes frustratingly forced (most notably as she went through her first persuasion of Othello to favour Cassio again, with every sentence punctuated by a different posture), it had the effect of forcing Othello to raise his game, pushing him to extremes of behaviour in order to cow her. When he struck her in the parade ground, to the shock of Lodovico and Gratiano, the screams she gave sounded real and the clustering of her supporters around her instinctive. Hytner’s skill is to create an understandable and consequential narrative for events, with the result that moments of violence had a visceral effect.

The attention to quasi-naturalistic detail was sometimes distracting, particularly as Iago poured himself a (presumably cold, given it hadn’t boiled) cup of tea from a standard-issue kettle, and sometimes led to undramatic anticlimaxes. While it made sense for guns to be used in the attempted assassination of Cassio and in Iago’s murder of Emilia, gunshot deaths were disappointing and missed the intimate proximity of these deaths (given Iago’s clear distaste for contact with Emilia, however, the cold execution was probably fitting). The fragility of surroundings, however, served Othello’s rage and gave a gritty reality to his passing out on bathroom tiles. More powerfully, the excellent drinking scene crowded fifteen soldiers into a tiny room that amplified the chaos felt by Cassio, whose aggressive drunkenness was only fuelled by finding himself repeatedly staring soldiers in the face. Elsewhere, Desdemona desperately overturning drawers in an attempt to find the handkerchief, Emilia being locked out of a bedroom door by Othello and Iago using his desk computer as the perfect excuse to answer Othello in frustratingly ambiguous asides all served the exacerbation of events.

Inevitably, though, the close proximity and attention to painful detail came into their own in the final scene. The starkness of an overhead light being switched on and off cast events in brutal clarity, and the crampedness of the room made the violence painful to watch. Lester threw Vinall hard onto the bed, and she fought desperately, kicking and screaming, clawing at him as he moved through stages of throttling. For one horrendous moment it looked as if he had chosen to forgive her, before his voice turned hard again and he cried that he had mistook her for the cunning whore of Venice. The cold brutality of his sitting on top of her, moving from smothering with a pillow to holding hands round neck while she slowly stopped thrashing was awful to behold. As the room then filled with people and Emilia’s rage became the dominant force, the cameras stayed glued to Lester’s face as the enormity of what he had done hit home. This was a long production, but the slowness of the concluding movement repaid every extra second.

The concluding moments were prosaic in their motions, as Iago was bustled out of the room, holding back for one final blank-faced look at the tragic loading of the bed. But the emotional weight was carried, surprisingly, by Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s Gratiano, a civilian completely out of place in this military area and terrified by what he was seeing. In grace notes such as this, the care and attention of Hytner’s production was apparent. In taking a setting and situation so familiar and yet so alien to the audience, Hytner found the perfect heightened environment to play out a modern tragedy of inexpressible repression, with a brutal payoff.

Posted in Theatre review