What greater joy than to spend a couple of hours immersed in a brilliantly produced “Othello”! The National’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy features two masterful performances from Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago. Adrian Lester, OBE, is the lesser known of the two, appearing mainly in some sub-standard TV shows: the mildly interesting and forgettable heist series, “Hustle”, and more recently in the deservedly well-lauded play, “Red Velvet”, the story of a nineteenth century African-American actor, Ira Aldridge who took over the role of Othello after actor Edmund Kean collapsed on stage.
Rory Kinnear, exuding ferocity and power as Iago, is, on the other hand, probably the more familiar of the two. We know him as the mild-mannered bureaucrat, Tanner, in the new Daniel Craig, Bond movies.
These two electrify the stage in what is essentially Shakespeare’s mano a mano showdown. Othello is the noble, regal leader; a man who stands above the prejudice and passions of the society in which he lives. But he is also so trusting in the honor of his fellow-man, that he is blind to the villainy in others. And it is this blindness that Iago, himself blinded by hate and jealousy, takes advantage of.
In none of the other tragedies do we see such a transformation, as is transformed from a man of stately dignity Othello (“If virtue no delighted beauty lack…is far more fair than black”) to one tormented by doubt and consuming passions. He becomes the embodiment of the horned man – “a monster and a beast”
Lester’s Othello pulls at the audience’s sympathies, shifting them from admiration to horror and revulsion, as he staggers around knocking over tables and collapsing in an epileptic fit, and then to our sense of the deep sadness of the loss, “Speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate…Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.”
Kinnear’s Iago is seductively revulsive from the onset. Shakespeare cleverly pulls the rug from any of the closet racists in his audience when he ensures that the articulation of racism is centered in what is an unambiguously evil character. It’s as though he were saying, if you have any issues with the idea of a black man with a white women (“…the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor”; “…an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe”) then you are of Iago’s mind-set.
As we see the slow (well, slow in Shakespeare’s theatrical time frame, where months pass in the course of a monologue) change in Othello, Kinnear gives us the almost moment by moment transformations of his Iago. One moment he is seemingly thoughtfully concerned as he hesitantly, reluctantly insinuates his faux suspicions into Othello’s trusting ears; and another he is aggressively dismissive of his foppish foil, Roderigo.
The overt narrative of racism is the engine that sets the tale in motion. But racism – judging someone by how they look rather than who they are – is only the outward shell of the play’s deeper exploration of the bigger fault-lines of how we judge each other. Roderigo sees or wants to see in Iago someone who will pursue his interests in Desdimona; Othello sees Iago as an honest man; Barbantio sees Othello as a deceiver; we – the audience – see Othello as a man above the fog of passion; Desdimona cannot see the changes taking place in her husband; even Iago, who of them all can best read character, can only judge Othello thru his own lens of hatred.
Director Nicholas Hynter, who is the director of the National (and who gave us “The History Boys and “One Man, Two Guvnors”) brings his movie making chops (he also directed “The History Boys” for the cinema) to the staging of the play. He keeps the action fast and uses a strong, dark musical score to enhance the drama onstage.
But it is his staging with designer Vicki Mortimer that delivers an exciting immediacy. The play is set in the modern times (accomplished by some clever editing: Othello’s initial words of peace, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” are omitted; various characters are shot rather than stabbed). The story begins outside a pub as Iago and Roderigo, escaping the din inside, share a cigarette and set the action in motion. The pub morphs into the apartment of Barbantio, which then, via a series of clever moving sets, morphs into an army base where the rest of the play takes place. The modern day staging – Othello and the others are in army fatigues – never seems gimmicky and delivers the rich relevance Hynter no doubt sought after.
Some staging of Shakespeare, often centering on The Big Name can drag. Ian McKellan’s “Lear” was great as a showcase for his individual talent, but seemed to last for days.
This “Othello” though (not only as a result of the brilliance of Hynter’s directing – always such as joy to see the pauses, the shifts in mood, the movements on stage that, duh, you don’t get as a reader – but also from the richness of the acting where even some of the minor roles stand out) is not unlike a recent staging of “Twelfth Night” with Mark Rylance as Olivia, in that they whip past in no time.
“…Ay, that’s the way./Dull not device by coldness and delay”