Othello – NT 2013
Olivier Theatre at The National Theatre
Othello in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre. The irony of the place and the play can’t escape me. Laurence Olivier’s 1965 production was filmed and I saw it in early 1966. I writhed in deep embarrassment as Olivier hammed for England, his white eyeballs rolling madly in a weird blue / green / black greasepaint-shiny face with a slash of bright red lipstick. I thought it minstrelsy at its worst. As in Al Jolson. George Mitchell’s Black & White Minstrels. It was an excruciating hamfest of wild over-acting. OK, you had a more believable performance from Frank Finlay as Iago, perhaps because Finlay was attuned to the camera, as well as having Maggie Smith as Desdemona, but Olivier to me was a bad joke. Since then I’ve seen enough Shakespeare to wonder whether the mistake was doing it as a filmed play with full theatrical projection, a kind of prequel of NT Live. Maybe it was great in the hall on the day. So years later, I made myself watch it again, just to check out whether my extreme teenage opinion stuck. It did. I’m fully aware that many disagree vehemently with that opinion, as did my companion way back then. Some even call it his greatest performance. I was so attacked over expressing that opinion of Olivier that I couldn’t resist bringing up the subject with an Afro-Carribbean co-student three years after seeing it. He was studying dance and drama. He had found Olivier’s Othello deeply offensive, as had I. It’s water under the bridge, no one is going to attempt Othello in blackface again. It was already a bad idea in 1965. There are extracts on YouTube.
Othello and Desdemona on arrival at the base in Cyprus
2013. The concept is to set it in modern warfare, and stresses the Iago / Othello comrades in arms aspect, which is why Othello would trust his comrade. It also why the man of action (Othello) would pass over his fellow man-of-action and employ the military academy-educated Cassio as his lieutenant. He needs the balance. The programme notes explain this very well. I’d love to have the concession supplying camouflage battledress to the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, and Chichester … in fact everywhere doing Shakespeare. This one is set in Desert Storm or Afghanistan. In Othello’s office, the map on the wall is the Arabian peninsula. According to the text, Othello goes to Cyprus to repel the Turks. The Turks (like the Spanish Armada) are defeated by storms at sea, and the invading forces, under Othello, are confined to barracks, surrounded by high anti-bomb blast concrete slabs. But with the Turkish threat removed, they have nothing to do. Jonathan Shaw’s programme notes bring out the military parallels with today. Shaw explains how the military experience of surviving battle together over years engenders a level of mutual trust that would be hard to explain in civilian life.
Othello has an intrinsic flaw. We’re supposed to see it as the tragedy of a great man duped. But it’s not at all. In modern dress, Othello is the disgruntled postal worker who murders his wife horribly, and if available, all his children too. Probably in front of her. The newspapers scream “Bring Back Hanging” but we’re into whether her infidelity is Othello’s feverish imagination, so paranoid-schizophrenia and Broadmoor, or whether she really screwed Cassio, in which case he’s just a violently evil psychopath and Dartmoor. I can’t see it ever as the duped tragic figure. He’s got to be either paranoid or evil. He could indeed divorce or leave Desdemona, but where on Earth do you justify murdering her? That’s why I don’t think Othello is ever a play for today. And that’s all Shakespeare’s fault. Given 36 plays by the bard, it would have been one of my last choices to produce. The modern parallels of the “disadvantaged” (disabled, black, whatever) man killing the younger blonde girl, is Oscar Pistorius. It hasn’t gone to trial yet, so “kill” rather than “murder.” Or then again, we have O.J. Simpson who was charged with the death of Nicole Brown. Or maybe it’s another honour killing. I don’t see any of them as tragic heroes in the slightest. But they are all examples of the Othello Syndrome. Racism isn’t the issue in this play … it’s mainly casual and early and restricted to a couple of characters only … but gender issues certainly are. It is one of the problems in setting the play today. We know that in days of old when knights were bold women were treated as chattels.
Iago and Othello in the office
The first thing to stress is that some modernisations work, and some don’t. This one works extremely well and makes as much sense of the plot as you possibly can. The same was true of the Nicholas Hytner directed Hamlet with Rory Kinnear in 2010.
The sets create an army base. Earlier, the Doge of Venice’s cabinet room is wheeled on. Then once they get to Cyprus, we have the fortified base, the mess room (a truly fabulous version of getting Cassio drunk takes place here), the offices in a Portakabin, the men’s toilets in a Portakabin (Othello hides in a toilet cubicle to overhear Iago and Cassio), the Married Quarters with cheap IKEA furniture. Throughout set design and set movement is five star. It’s trundled on and off to loud music. So is lighting.
The mess scene: getting Cassio drunk
Rory Kinnear is a magnificent Iago, which is always the best role in the play. He gets a lot of humour, and a lot of modern readings of lines too. His accent is professional soldier. You can hear it on TV reports; an educated officer trying to talk down and talk tough at the same time. A kind of rough-sandpapered talked down to Estuary accent. My companion thought at first he’d confused the Moor of Venice with The Merchant of Venice and sounded London-Jewish, but I think it’s a deliberate actor “off accent” and it really sounds “soldier.” It’s a towering performance, inveigling, physical, glorying in his deceits, punching the air with his fists when he twists the plot around Othello another turn more. Kinnear is inviting the audience into his confidence, evil but funny. It eclipses Frank Finlay as the definitive Iago.
Iago and Othello in the toilet block.
I think Othello a near impossible part, and Adrian Lester is powerful, but also more subtle and believable than Olivier ever was … with one proviso. More lust and passion is needed with Desdemona. Olivia Vinall does her beautifully as a touchy-feeley, innocent, young, fey waif … but the red-blooded ex-slave who has worked his way up through the ranks to command the Venetian forces should have rather more erotic chemistry, and animal magnetism, with Desdemona. It’s clear that like the captain of a ship, he should not ever have brought her on board. She’s isolated. Even Emilia, Iago’s wife, is a soldier … this is the 2013 army with women soldiers too.
Desdemona, Othello, Emilia
Everything comes together because of the direction. Blocking / Positioning is superb … as when Othello has his back to us as Desdemona leans across his desk importuning for Cassio. Throughout stage positioning is excellent, as is line interpretation. I couldn’t fault any of that. I liked Tom Robertson’s Rodrigo as wimpy nerd adding a welcome touch of comedy every time he appeared.
On the Sunday we saw it, Sandy Batchelor as understudy, took on the role of Cassio, and you couldn’t see the joins. He deserves special applause, and got it. The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company reveal their depth when an understudy is used. Cassio is a physical part, especially in the mess room drinking scene that ends up in a massive drunken brawl. And the understudy was well-rehearsed and so good that the scene was one of the great memorable interpretations of Shakespeare. Contrast that to the English Touring Theatre a couple of weeks ago, having an understudy reading from the book in The Misanthrope.
It got a standing ovation, which is not a given at the National. It earned it, as by far the best Othello I’ve seen. But I still have grave misgivings about the play itself.
£3. Worth every penny for the illuminating essay on Othello in a military setting by the play’s military advisor, Jonathan Shaw. Also an excellent essay by Nicholas Hytner on how actors discover new levels in Shakespeare, much of it in reference to Hamlet in 2010 (linked earlier).
I thought the smoking worked in being Iago’s way of trying to establish a clumsy rapport with Rodrigo … it is a situation where cigarettes used to be used in that way.