REVIEW: Othello, National Theatre, July 2013

Othello production poster.  (c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.
(c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.

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.

(l-r)_Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Production photography by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello.
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

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.

(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal). (c) Photo by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal).
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

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.

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REVIEW: Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre, July 2013.

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This weekend I caught a matinee of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in London. First thing of note: it was the first piece of modern theatre I’ve seen outside Stratford for quite a while (does Joe Wright’s production of Pinero/Marber’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar count? Mind you, compared to Shakespeare…). So after having spent most of the year watching plays in a thrust stage auditorium, I found myself in a traditional proscenium arch set-up. So that was slightly odd (one gets so used to having the actors so very close to you after a time), but it’s perhaps a reminder to myself that I need to see a lot more theatre outside of Stratford. Another thing of note: many seats in the Upper Circle and Dress Circle were vacant throughout the performance (although, from where I could see, the stalls were relatively packed, barring a few empty seats). That’s a shame, considering Jonathan Kent’s production was worth passing the afternoon for.

I don’t claim much of an expert opinion on Coward: my only exposure to him was reading Private Lives on the bus home from Galway in the second year of my degree, and I remember really, really enjoying it (and somehow managing not to get seriously carsick). As far as I know — and anyone who has a more far-ranging knowledge of Irish theatre history than I do is welcome to prove me wrong — you wouldn’t see many of Coward’s plays in the repertory back in Ireland either, so the most exposure you’d have to his work is through reading them. Again, a great shame.

As far as my understanding of the play in performance goes, the play can’t really work if you don’t believe in Elyot and Amanda, and if you don’t sense the chemistry and passion (in more ways than one) between them on the stage. In that sense, they’re a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet: the performance just won’t work if they don’t convince you. Perhaps the greatest success of this production is the casting, then, as Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are absolutely outstanding as the lead pair. Stephens especially has a gift for comic timing and pratfalling (well, myself and Miss Mickum knew that already, from watching Vexed): his gasp of mock horror when Victor calls him a drunkard, and his response to Sibyl’s ‘Where are you going?’ (‘Canada’ is the sharp reply) are hilarious. He’s caddish, alarmingly brute-like, very immature, and somehow very likeable. Chancellor’s Amanda is more than a match for him: she’s flighty, glamorous, stubborn, and ready to dance to The Rite of Spring just to annoy her ex-husband. Even though she’s just as prone to losing her temper as he is — the final moments of Act II are utter chaos, as Elyot is rained on with anything from roses to sheet music, and just barely missing being hit by cups and saucers — she also displays hints of vulnerability. Perhaps Elyot is the same, as well: the two spend most of Act II clinging to one another, terrified of repeating history before everything goes to pot just before the interval.

(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot. (c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.
(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot.
(c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.

They’re ably supported by Anna-Louise Plowman (Stephens’ wife in real life, fact fans) as Sibyl and Anthony Calf as Victor: one needy, insecure, and dressed in ludicrous taffeta (Elyot’s ‘Oh God’ sums it up precisely); the other bad-tempered, blustering, and fiercely proud. It’s particularly funny to watch these two tear seven shades out of one another towards the play’s end — made even more the funnier by Elyot and Amanda’s silent and amused (and eventually, quite bored) presence in the background. Sue Kelvin’s Louise is only unintelligible due to my poor French, but perhaps that was the point: you got the sense that she was perhaps having the last laugh on those who couldn’t understand her.

A final note about set design, and other things: I’ll never get tired of revolving sets. Good that we’re got that out of the way. Compared to the simple corresponding balconies of Act I (signposting how the two married couples seem to mirror each other throughout the scene), Amanda’s Paris apartment is a luxurious haven surrounded with plush beds and throws, vinyls, and numerous paraphernalia. Stephens and Chancellor lounge around such a place in their pyjamas during Act II, jokingly claiming that they’re ‘living in sin’. Whilst such sentiments are a reminder that we’re still in the early 1930s, thankfully Kent’s production is not. Elyot’s complaint about Amanda’s sleeping around, an activity he claims is the reserve of men, is deeply misogynistic, but here — and perhaps Stephens’ pratfalling plays a part in this — he becomes the butt of the joke rather than the joke reflecting more on Amanda. Perhaps it is another manifestation of how our cultural attitudes can shape our reception to plays  written before our generation (see W. B. Worthen and Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance for this), but Elyot’s sexism is held up as baseless posturing. I can’t account for the entire audience, nor should I account for the reception towards the play’s original performance, but for me on that Saturday afternoon, Elyot’s sexism wasn’t glorified. Amanda laughs at him for being very outdated, and so do we.

So, perhaps you should get yourself a ticket while they last. Runs until 21 September 2013.

‘Who am I? I’m the goddamn Batman’, replied Aunt Helga

St. Swithin’s Day comics, anyone?

Happy St. Swithin’s Day to you all. I’ve been wracking my brains lately trying to come up with a blog post, or something to write about. You know, the sort of polemical blog post that asks Why Do Today’s Parents Stop Their Kids Doing The College Course They Love (mine didn’t, but still), or a general fluff-piece that critically analyses Swedish House Mafia music videos, which are great fun because they really don’t make any sense, or something else entirely. Maybe I should hold it off for a few days and write a commemorative ‘July 19th: The Day The Ice Age Ended’ article. Which, in all likelihood, would probably spin out into reams of Father Ted jokes and references to sabre-toothed, acorn-eating squirrels. And this, in result, would probably last two paragraphs in total.

So here’s a list of things that I’m going to write about instead, as a form of meandering update searching for a point to make:

1) I’m going to write about Batman. This roughly translates as ‘I’M REALLY EXCITED ABOUT THE NEW BATMAN FILM EVERYONE’, which is preferable than having to format this blog into a love-letter to Christopher Nolan and his work (even though he probably is a very lovely chap). This is maybe to the point of fearing for one’s mental health, as I am now one of those insane folk who will be turning up for a 5am screening of The Dark Knight Rises at the local pictiúrlann, because of those pesky time-zone restrictions. You can laugh at my folly next week if I fall asleep in the midst of doing anything important next Friday evening. I can only hope it’s not making the dinner or doing the ironing.

2) The Galway Arts Festival is nearly upon us! In fact, it starts TOMORROW, and this is very exciting. I’m due to see Propeller Theatre Company in the second week of the festivities, when they bring Henry V and The Winter’s Tale to the Black Box. I’m just as excited to see them as I am to see The Dark Knight Rises, or maybe even more (words cannot express the love I have for The Winter’s Tale, they really can’t). I’m also hoping to see Fishamble’s The Great Goat Bubble, and if money were no object, the DruidMurphy cycle. David Greig also has a new play at the festival, if I’m not mistaken. If you don’t see anything else, at least go to the Macnas parade, which takes place next Sunday (for my sake, because I can’t perform in it this year and it makes me very sad. And Macnas are wonderful, creative, inventive, hard-working folks).

3) Also, the Galway Fringe Festival is underway too! This is running for most of the month, and is also very exciting. There is A Lot of Theatre, Art, Dance, Music, Literary Events, etc. — and it’s all over the town, even spilling into and out from the university (The Tribal Lyric, Ahhhh Lad!!, and Third Time Lucky to count a few). In general, Galway finally has its own Fringe, go see some shows, huzzah, groovy times. It’s about time we had one.

4) In general, life is generally quiet here back at home. But in the nicest way possible. It’s mid-July though, which means we’re already halfway through the summer, and closer again to new semesters, new colleges, that kind of thing. That is exciting in itself, but I’m enjoying the quiet time when I still can have it.

An Irish Girl In Stratford II: The Berlin Decision, or What You Will

This is pretty much a post-Stratford update, if you will. I didn’t come back to Ireland with a broken or amputated leg, a curse having been put upon me by a vengeful gypsy, or having accidentally blown anything up, so by those standards the expedition went rather well. Stratford, as I’ve probably reiterated over the past few days to anyone who’s asked, is really quite lovely. In size, it’s comparable to Galway, and it’s remarkably easy to get around. It’s CLEAN too (it’s a tourist town, so I guess it has to be).  And having located the Shakespeare Bookshop and Waterstone’s, the place adequately fulfils The Bookshop Quota. So all that’s grand.

The main reason why I came over (other than checking out where I’m going to be living for the next year or so) was for the BritGrad conference at the Shakespeare Institute. The Institute host this conference every year, which is organised by graduate students, and allows graduate students to show off their work and get feedback. As well as that, they manage to bag rather amazing plenary speakers (and this year didn’t disappoint. You can listen to some of them here). Now, Galway is great for meeting drama folk, and I’ve met a lot of them through studying theatre and English or through Dramsoc. I love being able to sit in a café, a seminar, or anywhere around town or college to discuss theatre with those who care about it as much as I do. If there’s one thing I’ll miss about theatre-going in Galway, it’s going to see a performance and arguing about it afterwards with dear friends over tea in Java’s till the wee hours. But what Galway lacks is a proper contingent of Shakespeare heads, and that’s what BritGrad provided in spades. That’s not to say that Everyone In Galway Hates Shakespeare (there are a good few who love him too, including the dashing WordOtter), but it was a nice change to refer to Cymbeline by its proper name rather than as ‘a really obscure play of Shakespeare’s’. Hell, there was a fascinating paper on the play last weekend, which made reference to Maradona’s Hand of God.

what’s a Thierry Henry?

This was all in an institution where people shared the same enthusiasm for the same interests. And also the same infectious excitement as gosh golly, well Professor Whatsername IS GIVING A PLENARY TODAY. In short, it was just wonderful being around people who love Shakespeare as much as I do, and that’s why I’d encourage any postgraduate working in that area (or general early modern drama-ness) to get their tushies over there for next year’s conference. Ah you will. You will now. ‘Gwan. They’re all LOVELY.

An Inept Tourist’s Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon:

a) Shakespeare’s House and Gardens: I regretfully didn’t visit Hall’s Croft and the rest, but there’s a lovely exhibition (voiced by PATRICK STEWART and… some other actress who I can’t remember as I’m terrible at recognising voices) where you get to see a copy of the First Folio (another is in Oxford, and not even Katherine Duncan-Jones is allowed to touch it) and get to potter around in his digs for a bit. The best bit is seeing the performers outside, especially on a very sunny day.

b) The RSC: Pretty much goes without saying. I’d recommend Richard III at the Swan, by the way. And there is such a gorgeous green outside the theatres, with a huge scrum of folk relaxing underneath the trees or buying ice-creams off the boat vendors.

c) Holy Trinity Church: Where you can see Shakespeare’s grave, memorial, etc. I didn’t get a chance to go here, despite being advised to. I’m sure they won’t move it to Shelbyville before I return.

d) The Real Tea Café: Because it was cheaper than Anne Hathaway’s. Well, this *is* supposed to be an inept guide of sorts.

In other news: Double First Class Honours degree, howrya?

An Irish Girl In Stratford

Shakespeare’s crib. It’s lovely.

Hello all! This is coming to you live from Stratford-upon-Avon, which is located god knows where in the Midlands of the United Kingdom. I could write reams about its loveliness, but I’ll try to process that after I leave. But yes, it really is quite beautiful, and I’m excited about moving over here permanently.

On a more home-based note, if you’re in Galway next week, be sure to get yourself out to see Red Kettle Theatre Company’s The Country Girls (adapted by Edna O’Brien from her own novel) in the Town Hall. It’s directed by the Very Lovely And Talented Mikel Murfi (who’s coming to this year’s Galway Arts Festival accompanied by Fishamble for The Great Goat Bubble), and among the strong cast is the Equally As Lovely And Talented Bob Kelly, who probably gives the funniest portrayal of a priest on stage this year. Having seen the show last week, I can assure you that it’s a very good show and, for the older wans in the audience, very nostalgic.

To revise: Stratford, lovely, Country Girls, Galway. More substantial writing next week or the week after.