Last Monday, the 22nd of July, was a big step in the theatre-going life of Young Emer. Even though I have been living in the UK for almost twelve months now, it was the first time that I had stepped foot inside the National Theatre to see a show. I’m very glad that my first time happened to be Nicholas Hytner’s production of Othello at the Olivier. It’s an intense, claustrophobic production, anchored by some remarkable acting. It being my first time seeing the play on stage, it might just banish the memory of being forced to watch the Kenneth Branagh-Laurence Fishburne 1995 film version in school, which had a very wet Emilia, Branagh’s otherwise great performance being hampered by the fact that they shot his soliloquies like a David Attenborough documentary, and Desdemona dancing with a pole for no particular reason except it probably looked nice (to which my Leaving Cert English teacher responded, ‘As you do’).
Hytner places his actors onto a set that is initially quite urban (Iago and Roderigo’s first exchange takes place outside a very loud bar, for example), but as soon as it moves towards the climax of Act One with the Duke’s Council, Vicki Mortimer’s set begins to focus on the interior: as the production progresses, tiny, brightly-lit rooms are revealed, becoming the site for much of the action. This is particularly effective once the play moves to the Cypriot barracks: with large, looming concrete walls and lamp-poles in the background, it’s almost as if someone literally ripped off the roof of one of the cabins in order to peer into the characters’ private affairs. This highlights the domesticity of Othello, and the domesticity and intimacy of its tragedy: carnal affairs, and things we’d rather keep to ourselves, are a preoccupation of many of the characters. It also lends a sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings: there’s no opportunity for fresh air, everyone’s in each other’s faces, and there’s no chance of privacy. People may overhear your raucous drinking sessions. People may be eavesdropping on your private conversations. Nothing is your own private business here.
But perhaps the greatest success of this production is its Othello and Iago (Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear). Lester’s Othello is charismatic, imposing, and remarkably restrained when he needs to be: rather than a surprising exclamation, his ‘Goats and monkeys’ is delivered in a rather deadpan fashion to Lodovico (Nick Sampson) before marching off stage without another word. The final scene of the play sees him swing from displaying cold ruthlessness to expressing genuine, honest grief in a short space of time, yet he pulls this off rather convincingly: his murder of Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) is particularly horrible, but we grow to express a degree of sympathy for him in his final moments of despair. Rory Kinnear’s Iago is refreshingly non-Machiavellian: there’s a degree of earthiness to him which makes him more dangerous. When he spits out ‘I hate the Moor’, his bitterness and anger is palpable. One of the greatest ironies of the play is the constant refrain of ‘honest Iago’, and Kinnear’s performance actually makes sense of this: he almost plays mentor to Cassio after his disgrace in Act Two, and you get the idea that he’s played a similar role to the soldiers who have also passed through the ranks. He’s the friendly bloke at work who you meet on the first day, who shows you the ropes, and who takes you for your first pint at the end of the day; it’s not for nothing that Iago leads the session that results in Cassio losing his job. You realise why Othello trusts him so much: Lester’s performance benefits from Kinnear’s in that it becomes very hard to view Othello as a gullible fool, and Kinnear’s benefits from Lester’s in that Iago does not resemble a pantomime villain. Their friendship (well, it’s very one-sided from the looks of it) becomes actually tangible and more realistic to the audience member. Lester and Kinnear become a formidable partnership.
They’re ably supported by the likes of Lyndsay Marshal, who plays a wonderfully fiery, pragmatic Emilia, who’s not afraid to have a pint with the lads or to stand up to her husband (one disturbing moment of manhandling infers that he’s abusive towards her). Jonathan Bailey, a.k.a. that little shit in Broadchurch, effectively brings out the braggadocio in Cassio, but also conveys that the young lieutenant has a lot to learn. Olivia Vinall is terrific in parts (especially in her final scene), but she begins her scenes in a weirdly declamatory fashion. She’s good as she goes along, and she teases out aspects of the character beyond the two-dimensional ‘angel’ template, but it’s jarring when she begins with WHERE SHOULD I LOSE THAT HANDKERCHIEF EMILIA before easing into a delivery similar to that of her fellow actors. What’s particularly interesting about how her performance fits in the grand scheme of things is how out of place Desdemona is at the barracks. This is epitomised by the Venetians’ arrival in Act Two: Iago, Othello, Emilia, Cassio et al arrive wearing army helmets and fatigues, but Desdemona rushes in casual wear and a blue backpack. There’s genuine tenderness between Lester and Vinall, but it becomes clear from their performances that Desdemona didn’t realise what she signed up for when marrying into the army, or that she perhaps took Othello’s stories at face value.
All in all, it’s a very thoughful, well-made production. The final moments leave us with Iago, who pauses before leaving Othello and Desdemona’s lodgings with Lodovico, Gratiano, and Cassio. He stares at the three dead bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia on the bed for a good few seconds. Initially I believe he’s staring at them with a degree of remorse… or perhaps he thinks he’s exceeded his expectations and has hit the jackpot. With a man who vows never to ‘speak word’, and who won’t fully disclose his intentions, it’s fitting that we close with more ambiguity on Iago’s part. Runs until 5 October.