NT Live’s “Othello”: The Beast in the Desert

National Theatre's "Othello": Rory Kinnear as Iago; Adrian Lester as Othello

The National Theatre’s “Othello”: Rory Kinnear as Iago; Adrian Lester as Othello

NT Live makes good once again on its bold promise of quality, audience-accessible stage performance. London’s incomparable National Theatre offers a contemporary “concept production” of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Othello” that makes the 16th century play feel as if it were written today, as edgy and raw as anything composed fresh on the latest version of iPad. Directed with taut, masculine focus by the company’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the production unfolds in an austere, fortified military compound in an imaginary Cyprus, part of a Middle Eastern war that borrows extensively from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The multi-chambered set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, is comprised of a series of barracks-like modular cube reveals — grim, utilitarian and claustrophobic — backed into soaring, harsh lit barrier walls, all slid in and out on tracks or swung around effortlessly as scenes demand by the ensemble’s soldiers in full camouflage attire. An immense, heavily guarded chain-link gate upstage center functions for major entrances and exits. Impenetrable darkness floats beyond the gate, what one might expect in a hostile desert, with the only light penetrating the void the beams of helicopter transports as they disgorge arriving troops and dignitaries accompanied by the overpowering whir and thrum of rotating blades. Hytner engaged recently retired Major General Jonathan Shaw to school his ensemble in the intimate, detailed realities of base decorum, relationships, battle readiness and conduct, down to how their berets should be worn. You don’t doubt for one moment during the screening that the company, with male and female soldiers, creates a viable verisimilitude of modern day wartime existence. Against this potent background Shakespeare’s rich, dark drama of jealousy and betrayal soars sinister and explosive like a malevolent beast set free from captivity, bent on utter destruction.

Hytner’s Othello and Iago benefit from the pent up, testosterone-driven intensity created by the environment and the dominant reality of military conduct in creating their roles. A soldier’s trust in his companions must be unimpeachable for survival. Iago the ensign has served faithfully under Othello for at least a decade; his rage and jealousy at being passed over for promotion and possibly cuckolded by the charismatic Othello have festered for years, as he reveals when the play opens. At Othello’s surprise marriage to the fair, high class Desdemona and the officer Michael Cassio’s promotion above him, Iago holds back no longer and hatches his evil plot of revenge to destroy Othello. Othello, much distracted by his charming bride and trusting his ensign as protocol demands and from longtime habit, suspects nothing and falls for the deception, an unwitting victim of his own pride, naiveté and military custom.

The casting of Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago reflects well on Hytner’s wisdom as a director. He fosters their talents at maximum capacity, allowing them to fully utilize the creative skills as artists that have garnered them both international acclaim. Their relationship displays the symmetry of modern dance ballet without ever appearing stage-y or caricatured. Lester embodies the high-principled Othello with masculine grace and effortless lyricism. He expresses his character’s flowery style of speech as though born to noble leadership; but from the first, there seems to be something slightly erratic about this Othello, as if tiny fissures mar his smooth, controlled, commanding presence if one peers closely. It feels perfectly reasonable when he gets snared by Iago’s machinations and descends into ungrounded, unreasonable madness.  Rory Kinnear can play multiple character aspects at once with enormous clarity and vigor; Iago feels like a role tailored to his enormous talent. Whether dissembling to Othello, manipulating Desdemona’s arrogant, feckless suitor Roderigo, or abusing his wife Emelia, his Iago never stops analyzing and adjusting the master plan with slightly furrowed brow, while his jealousy and desire for revenge blooms larger and more painful with each passing moment, seeping out of his pores, his trembling lower lip. Watching these two men play together leaves one feeling breathless and in awe at their brilliance as actors. Alone, their performances make this “Othello” a landmark in the canon. Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia give commendably strong performances as well. The wild, drunken barracks brawl where Michael Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) loses control and injures another soldier, in a confined space, demonstrates a superb example of how effective stage combat can be if done well (fight choreography by Kate Waters). Limited showings can make this NT Live production hard to catch. It is very well worth the viewing. Two audience members exiting the performance commented that they had never understood Shakespeare so well before… they wondered if the script had been updated? It had not: honest praise for another superb production by the National Theatre.

NT Live’s “Othello” plays again at the Angelika Film Center & Cafe in Plano on Tuesday October 15.

A version of this review appears on TheaterJones.com

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