Othello from a military perspective? It sounds like yet another director’s far-fetched take on Shakespeare’s endlessly adaptable plays. In fact, it’s not. The dress may be modern, the bunkers concrete and the guns automatics, but Nicholas Hytner’s brilliant version of Othello at the National Theatre slots right into place with the text.
This is a comment on military men pushed to their limits who all crack up in different ways. Othello snaps at the woman he loves, his second in command Cassio wreaks havoc because he can’t take his drink, and behind it all, stands the monstrous Iago, whose anger is the seething poison that blights the lives of those around him.
It is the sort of production that makes you understand just why Shakespeare continues to enthral audiences and actors. Memorable performances, a strong supporting cast, a director with vision and design that gives life to the claustrophobia of an army camp – this will turn any bored student into a fan, and the National Theatre deserves fulsome praise for making this available to an international audience.
It is not the first time, though, that I have thought the play belongs to Iago, seen here in a definitive performance by Rory Kinnear (his Hamlet is featured in the National Theatre anniversary screenings soon). Hytner has layered class, rather than race, into the vitriolic mix of jealousy and hatred that boils within Iago. He can drink with the men, yet be a confidante to Othello, Desdemona and Cassio. Kinnear is utterly convincing in both extremes of his role, making his working class accent most pronounced while setting up his plans. When Othello delivers the accolade ‘honest Iago’, the audience must believe Iago’s con-artistry is sufficient to allow for such error of judgement.
That added sinew of class distinction makes Cassio’s advancement so much more obvious, and Jonathan Bailey’s boyish charm in the role just reeks of privilege. No wonder Othello, already slightly awkward within society, despite his urbane exterior, chooses one of the boys.
With the modern army backdrop, Hytner has set the scene so we could be looking at the fallout from the Iraqi war, or any of the other current military conflicts around the globe. As director he very deliberately plants the seed for the tragedy in the words of Desdemona’s father, who warns Othello that a daughter who has deceived her father may do so again. Hytner makes this less of a love story across the colour bar and more about society’s rules and expectations. What better microcosm of the world than the stifling confines of an army barracks, where a woman in civilian gear, bubbling with new love, is bound to cause an explosion? In contrast the other women disappear in the faceless, bland environment, drab and unfeminine in their uniforms, including Iago’s wife Emilia.
The play is filled with asides to the audience, in which Iago makes us his confidante, and Kinnear has an easy air with this. We meet him seething with hatred of Othello because he has been passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio. He is an opportunist making it up as he goes along, not sure, he tells us, whether it will make or break him. Far from being pitted only against Adrian Lister’s Othello, Iago plays them all – from Desdemona’s thwarted suitor Roderigo who bankrolls the plot to the Venetian rulers. His game unfolds quickly, and Kinnear is compelling in the manner in which he orchestrates things, turning every move to his advantage.
Against this monstrous and overpowering evil, Lister’s Othello is naturally a less interesting character, a mere pawn in the other man’s hands. It is nonetheless a strong portrayal that takes Othello from the confidant arrogance of a general in the army to a man who seems to have the veneer of polite society stripped from him as jealousy drives him insane.
Olivia Vinall is altogether too light and bouncy as Desdemona to make this a memorable performance, but both she and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia create a wonderful sense of foreboding as the women talk on the eve of the fateful night. Marshal’s spitting virago when she then finds the depths of her husband’s deceit is a tour de force, and the only time when Kinnear’s Iago ever seems to flinch.
The powerful passions that drive Iago eclipse all else and Hytner’s production is a mesmerising tale of a man who unleashes such fire that the deadly ending comes as a relief from an emotional torture. Iago’s sullen look as he is dragged to face the body count shows such utter lack of remorse it still sends chills down my spine.