“Othello”, National Theatre (Adrian Lester/dir. Nicholas Hytner)

Adrian Lester as Othello. All photos (c) Johan Persson

My first draft of a review of the National Theatre’s current ‘Othello’ just read “ADRIAN LESTER” with big doodly hearts around it, so I apologise if this second try goes off the rails later. The play was really good.

It opened in a casual modern day setting, with Iago and Roderigo having a fag outside the Sagittary pub (an ALL DAY FOOD sign outside, of course). Rory Kinnear’s Iago was much closer to the surface than any Iago I can remember seeing; he spoke like he was working things out aloud, instead of knowingly manipulating people from the beginning. “I hate the Moor,” he said to Roderigo, and it was like he was discovering it about himself for the first time.

Rory Kinnear as Iago.

But his and Brabantio’s racism was strikingly out of place in this Venice. When Brabantio and Othello entered the council chamber (here an underground war room), the senators greeted Othello warmly, and immediately started talking about military action. Brabantio’s interruption to complain about his family problems and throw around accusations of witchcraft was jarring and inappropriate. At first the senators responded politely, but when Brabantio came out with his first racial slur, everyone made a “Whoa whoa whoa!” face, and the Duke immediately sat down and gestured for Othello to speak for himself: a sign of clear, uncompromised respect.

Adrian Lester’s Othello began the play amiable and confident – he acknowledged his father-in-law’s bigotry with a little wry smile: ‘You may be frustrated, but you’re also massively racist, and I know I’m coming out of this better than you are’. I never noticed before how much Othello relies on his service to Venice to defend himself, and to create his own identity: it’s almost the first thing he brings up about himself in his first big speech (after the brilliantly coy “Rude am I in my speech”) and he goes to it almost reflexively at the end of the play, when he is stumbling around in front of the Venetians and Iago trying to make sense of what’s just happened.

Most scenes were played in box containers, evoking military housing and (in the first act) the Venetian war room. The scene changes, with low boxes rolling towards the audience, were like tank movements; and I was most struck by the effect of artificial light replacing ‘natural’ light. In fact, there were only four scenes played ‘outdoors’: the first scene outside the Sagittary; Desdemona and Othello’s arrival in Cyprus; Lodovico’s arrival in Cyprus; and the ‘Willow’ song. (The song was beautifully staged as Desdemona and Emilia sitting outside on deck chairs, drinking beer, slinging the shit about men and singing gently together.)

Everything else took place under harsh, artificial light. The Cyprus military base was constructed and constricted. In that kind of environment, you could understand why it took so little for the characters to flip: for Cassio to lose control and assault a fellow soldier (and the beating he gave Montano was really sickeningly visceral), for Othello to go from relaxed, loving flirtation with Desdemona to violently mistrusting her within five minutes. How can you have a real marriage under only fluorescent lights?

Olivia Vinall as Desdemona, Adrian Lester as Othello and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia.

I’m afraid I didn’t get on with this production’s Desdemona. Olivia Vinall played the part-as-conceived wonderfully – girlish, bright and frail – but that version of Desdemona just doesn’t work for me. She never fought back, either verbally or (until the very, very last minute) physically, and the blocking in her final scene was just bizarre – she kept half-sitting up while arguing with Othello, then flopping backwards onto the bed in a weirdly passive way. Vinall’s vocals were very strong and again she played the part as envisioned very well – it just wasn’t a character direction I thought really worked.

Her Desdemona did have some great moments. She clearly thought this military base camp business was going to be a fun, romantic lark – she landed on Cyprus with a bright blue backpack, half the size of the soldiers’, which she thoughtlessly handed off to Emilia (Lyndsey Marshal, SMASHINGLY played as a bolshy take-no-shit Army squaddie) before jumping into Othello’s arms, giggling and kissing. Meanwhile everyone else stood around awkwardly waiting for Othello to return their salutes.

Her expectation of ‘Desdemona and Othello’s Cyprus Summer Camp Adventure!!’ was fulfilled by the soldiers, who gamely treated her with deferential, distant respect. There was a delightful comic scene just after the interval when Desdemona came across a few soldiers kicking a ball around: she earnestly joined in, and they patronisingly allowed her to score a goal before drifting off to find something else to do – of course they can’t play a real game with the general’s wife around! Her costuming was also spot on – Desdemona is the only one in her scenes ever in civilian clothes (Roderigo and Bianca are also in civvies, but they never overlap), so she was very obviously out of place everywhere.

Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Adrian Lester as Othello.

I haven’t said enough about Adrian Lester’s Othello, who was just the clearest, best Othello I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a few corkers – Eamonn Walker and Chiwetel Ejiofor were also Really Very Good). Never before have I been so aware of the tight, tight line between the relaxed and happy married man in Venice and the hair-trigger soldier in Cyprus. Lester’s Othello is an incredibly strong personality who lived through violent capture and slavery, wilfully re-made himself as a smart, brave, efficient military man, rose to the top of the officers’ ranks and then found the front-line killer was still closer than he thought.

Rory Kinnear kept his Iago tamped down and second to Othello, which was the right choice – it’s tempting to make the play into the Iago Show, since he gets all the chilly creepy lines and speaks to the audience all the time, but that’s a mistake. (Not that I think it would have been possible to threaten Lester’s dominance of the play, but it was smart not to try.)

The through line of this production was the chasm between military and civilian life – and between military and civilian relationships. Desdemona and Othello in Venice – the charismatic general and his generous, charming wife – would have been a mirror of a marriage. Othello and Desdemona in Cyprus – the taut soldier and the artless socialite – were a disaster. Iago smashed down their marriage, but he didn’t make the cracks.

Other things!

  • Cassio and especially Bianca were barely there, which was fine. Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio was nondescript, handsome, square-jawed and brunet – in fact, his interchangeability with the rest of the soldiers emphasised how random and passing Iago’s plots were. If Cassio hadn’t caught his eye holding Desdemona’s hand in that moment, it could have (and would have) been anyone else.
  • Emilia and Iago’s marriage had just the right amount of something-off-but-I-don’t-know-what. Iago alternately teased and disregarded her; Emilia was loud, confident and self-hatingly needy. Lyndsey Marshal’s body language when Emilia saw the spotted handkerchief on the ground was phenomenal: she was a Self-Respecting Woman and was definitely going to tell Iago to go to hell; but really, she knew that wasn’t going to happen, she would do what he wanted and hope that this time, it would be enough to make it all right again, like it was before.
  • Also on Emilia: in my reading of Marshal’s performance in the ‘Willow’ song scene, she had either had an affair already or had just decided to. Her going off on Bianca was part of that: Emilia realised how close their attitudes really were, and had to violently distance herself from the publicly sexually adventurous woman.
  • Oh goodness, Roderigo (Tom Robertson) was well done! He wore a giant ‘Visitor’ lanyard the whole time in Cyprus and dressed like an obnoxious Englishman on holiday (which, you know, he was). He was frustrated and pathetic without being wheedly or slapstick – very difficult with Roderigo and very good here.
  • One of the most manipulative things Kinnear’s Iago did was make everyone drinks: he put the kettle on for Cassio after the brawl, and fetched a glass of water for Othello after prodding him into an epileptic fit. It’s such a quietly trustworthy thing to do – nearly unnoticeable but so effective.
  • They used guns instead of swords, which was great – I hate modern-dress Shakespeares where they suddenly pull out bladed weapons and start having a duel. Particularly the scene where Iago sets up the ambush between Roderigo and Cassio, and murders Roderigo (an unblinking shot in the face), was tense and thrilling.
  • And finally, thank you to the designers at the National Theatre for creating a wonderful chilling poster that isn’t ‘Sexy Black Man Strangles White Woman All Sexily And Black Like’ (No. No. No. No. JESUS NO). It’s the easy place to go but it’s not what the play is about, and it’s also super racist! So, thank you thank you thank you.

About tickets: the production is super duper sold out. I got tickets on Saturday by queueing from 8am (after I’d been out at a coworker’s leaving drinks until 2am, I would just like to point out) and even then I was around the 30th person in line and I got the last two tickets (!!). If you want to see this production (which, it is really really good), you can either queue at the National Theatre from 7am-ish for day tickets (all £12), try to nab more tickets when they’re released in June, or watch it as part of the NT Live programme in cinemas on September 26. I’ll always recommend the live theatre version, but to be fair the cinema doesn’t involve waiting outside on cold concrete for two and a half hours (although the other queuers are always really nice).

Othello is directed by Nicolas Hytner, and runs in repertoire at the National Theatre until autumn 2013 – check the website for specific dates and times. Tickets are £12-48. The National Theatre is at Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX.

17 thoughts on ““Othello”, National Theatre (Adrian Lester/dir. Nicholas Hytner)

      • Jack V says:


        I'd really like to, but I've not realistically managed to arrange to see _any_ plays for ages, I don't think one that involves queuing for hours first thing in the morning is going to happen :( I may see the cinema version.

  1. So I've never been much into Shakespeare, probably because I have trouble with the Shakespearean English. But I always get interested when Shakespeare plays get done in modern settings and attire (camo?!)

    Weird question…did they do the play in Shakespearean English, or in modern English to fit the setting and attire?

    • between4walls says:

      Ooh, I just saw Hytner's Don Carlo (don't have anything to compare it too, it was my first opera, and so couldn't tell what the quality of the directing was). But this review makes me wish even more that I'd seen his earlier production of

      the play Don Carlos (not least because it's so rarely done). Because that is definitely a play where there is a lot of openness of the sort he describes.

      • Kerry says:

        I was reading a few other critics' reviews of this Othello after I wrote mine, and one of my favourite things I read was two or three people going, "Man, Nicolas Hytner is so annoying! I don't want to come across as a mindless fan, it's just that ALL HIS PRODUCTIONS ARE SO GOOD, there's nothing I can do!"

  2. C. says:

    It sounds really fantastic. I saw War Horse at the National Theatre and was really blown away by the production, so I hope I see more shows there. I've gotten by on Digital Theatre's availability of shows on this side of the pond but I really am itching to see them properly again.

    Othello has always struck me as oddly modern – but I'm a military/government/diplomacy brat and grew up around diplomats and soldier (who haven't really changed, it seems, over the centuries, in some cases racism included). For lack of a better way to put it, of all Shakespeare's plays Othello had a sense of an alarming possibility of really happening somewhere in my world. It never seemed as removed as the other tragedies.

    But you're spot on, romance is killed by florescent lighting. As is angst-free shopping.

    • Kerry says:

      I have somehow managed to miss War Horse (I know, I know) – although a colleague has an image on his desk of the movie poster, photoshopped to read 'My Lovely Horse' and featuring Father Dougal, and I now find it impossible to take seriously….

      Othello was one of the hardest ones for me to get into at first, but now it's one of my favourites to see onstage, for the reasons you give – it feels a lot closer and more possible than some of the others.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you! I hope you get to see it too, I'm sure the cinema version will be showing near you. Or that you'll be a better-conceived Desdemona in a production soon! :)

  3. Jack V says:

    I finally went to see this when I was visiting fishpi in London, it was awesome.

    Your review made several things click that I'd sort of seen but not really understood, like Iago's revenge slowly getting more and more complicated as he broods on it, and the focus on Othello rather than Iago.

    I see what you mean about Desdemona. I thought it would have worked better if she'd snapped at Othello's accusations in a way that obviously was what provoked him further.

    The racism was really shocking in a modern setting. Although I sort of think there are people who WOULD say things that bad (if using slightly different language) and be willing to put up with black people (or some other group) having roles in public life, but not want to invite them into the "marry a relative of mine and join the country club and get a minor title" club… I'm almost more shocked at the other people in the war room, who were all "oh yes, good speech, I guess you ARE a human being, not like all those OTHER people we have an irrational prejudice against we never bothered to examine before."

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