Othello, National Theatre (Olivier), London – review

The bulk of the action of Othello takes place in Cyprus, but the wall maps in Nicholas Hytner’s production are of the Middle East and occasionally in the background can be heard the amplified call of the muezzin. This is more than simple modishness, though: Hytner has taken the contemporaneity of his revival so seriously that he consulted a military adviser, Major-General Jonathan Shaw. Vicki Mortimer’s design unfolds several distinct environments into/out of an entirely convincing prefabricated military compound. Even Desdemona’s maid Emilia is a squaddie (squadette?), but the war with the Ottomans takes second place to the contention for Othello’s soul and destiny.

The focus of public attention for this production is the two leads. Adrian Lester’s Othello is smoothly orotund, never given to declamation however much more polished his speech may be than that of those around him. In the pivotal central phase with Iago, he first breaks rhythm when the latter speaks the dread j-word: jealousy. What this gradually unlocks in Othello is not so much anger (although he has his moments of fury) as a savage bitterness, not least bitterness at himself and his supposed former delusion (it is, of course, this supposition that is the real delusion).

Rory Kinnear’s Iago is every bit as matter-of-fact as one might expect, right from the first scene when he casually cadges a cigarette from Roderigo then, as part of the same move and so smoothly that you scarcely notice it, puts the pack in his own pocket. When planting the pernicious seeds of jealousy in Othello, Kinnear’s Iago delivers all the most crucial lines as throwaways, secure in the malign confidence that the Moor will register their full implication.

Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio has more to him than the ludicrously trusting dupe as whom the character is so often portrayed. Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona also sounds more mature than she looks, although ultimately Vinall cannot make of her a person rather than the mere object of Othello’s emotions. In this she is radically unlike Lyndsey Marshal, who as Emilia has only one decent scene, the last one, but magnificently storms that one from beginning to end.

I have reviewed a dozen productions of Othello on this page over the years, and this is probably the strongest and most coherent of them all.


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