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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Othello at the National Theater

Or: a proper Desert Storm

The leitmotif of the National Theatre’s current production of Othello is one of rage bottled in a confined space. An electric guitar plays a simple four cord progression at the pace of a rapid march, well suited to the scene Nicholas Hytner sets for us: a comfortless garrison in some unbearably hot and eternally dry country. Here, love and loyalty are boxed up into small concrete rooms which are brim full of things, and people, who’s sole purpose is to kill. It’s a recipe for disaster and, by G-d, it turns out deliciously.

Hytner’s production unites many currents of theatrical excellence to form one sweet keeper-hole of Shakespearian understanding. Not only has he and his cast wrestled the writhing Shakespearian language (all ways rich but, as is the wont of the Tragedies, also seeded with nuggets of bat-scat-crazy), and kept the well known plot moving at an invigorating march, they also have used the “concept” of the garrison to overcome some of the hurdles of the play: the sense of time that snaps up days at once or chews hours interminably, the fact that only so many people can be in a room at once, the Spartan tempered, powder keg feeling of the characters, and most of all the sense of Trust that lies between the servicemen and women that allows “honest” Iago to work with such impunity.

Rory Kinnear, who plays the scheming ensign, captures the very crux of an NCO (non-commissioned officer): too much power to fit into the camaraderie and synchronization of the grunts and too petty to walk with the Ruperts. In his slovenly dress, his cockney pentameter exploding like mortar-fire, and his attitude of both contempt and conciliation, he still manages to capture that air that gives him such authority: he’ll listen to your woes and think of a way to end them, he knows what ropes to pull, he gets things done. But passed over for power, and trapped in this hot and harsh world, the mental engine upon which every army runs turns itself to vile mischief. Kinnear’s performance would be golden were it not for the fact that he keeps slinging himself between two different intentions midstream. He cannot seem to decide if Iago takes sadistic (and highly infectious) pleasure in the stories he spins or whether what he has begun in a smoldering fit of rashness spirals out of his control, so that he must keep up the dance despite the cliff he is moving toward. Either makes a valid and thrilling performance, but both together leave us confused and befuddled unsure of what Iago is thinking. Which may be Kinnear’s point exactly.

Adrian Lester delivers the finest Othello I have yet seen: Olivier-esque in his open scenes: his words long and smooth, dripping with assonance, visibly changing gears between the playful bridegroom and the stern commander. Yet all of this easy control drains away as Iago needles him and Lester proves himself adapt at cracking his teeth on the shot-stops, turn arounds and mad repetitions the General wanders into as his mind unravels. It is both highly touching to see him cast into a fit of squeaky voiced weeping and very humorous as well (but perhaps that’s my hard heart, it certainly moves either way). Less effective are this Othello’s frequent acts of conjuring, such as driving his love away from his heart, or transforming himself into a wild beast, or just straight up snarling. They come from no where and while fully rooted in both voice and figure they savor more of Maccers than Othello: one goes mad because he tangles in the eldritch and unspeakable, the other goes mad because he is immeshed by imagination in what is all too common.

It is also a joy to see Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) and Emilia (Lyndsey Marshall) at last be freed from the shackles of “womanly” conduct and allowed to do some kicking and screaming of their own. Admittedly Vinall does not do as much as she could: she’s all bounce and go, eager to tackle adventure at Othello’s side, full of coy cheek biting and outraged sobs. But it’s all sound and no fury, all excellent stage action but nothing causing it. Though I will say this: I have never seen a more heart clenching smothering scene, nor a more commendable one. Your average Desdemona just wilts under the pillow but Vinall keeps of slapping and kicking, hanging on to life, through the pillow, through the hands on strangulation, even through her last asphyxiated speech. Oh, it does a body proud to see her holding on to life even as its choked from her, poor thing.

Marshall though, there’s one who seized a gift and ran with it. Rather than making Emilia an ambiguous lady-in-waiting/camp-follower Hytner has decided to put her in uniform. This Makes the character: it gives her divided loyalty to the Moor and his wife to struggle with, it allows her the rage and authority to rage in a swelling, north country voice born for raging, and it solidifies her friendship with Desdemona, the one person with who she can stop being One-of-the-boys, relax with a Heineken, and reflect on the double standards of adultery. Best of all, Hytner and Marshall together finally, Finally, FINALLY give Emilia a worthy death. Rather than letting her drag her mortally wounded self over the floor while a bunch of men stand ideally by, Marshall breaths her last, cradled in the arms of Othello as he carries her the the grim bed, to die beside her one friend, as she tries to hold her innards and get few more words out. You could see this production a hundred times and still be moved by that.

Of course under all these excellent choices there are a few off-the-mark performances: a babbling Brabantio (William Chubb) a Cassio (Johnathan Bailey) who resembles nothing more than an excited, lustful puppy, and a Roderigo (Tom Robertson) who is a dead ringer, in countenance, speech, and manner, for the reviled Prince Harry. But by the large everyone piles into the story like soldiers, looking out for their comrades, ready to get an impossible job done to the best of their ability. It makes for a bright, bitter Othello, and certainly one to hold up to future generations as one way to do it superbly.

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