Villain of the piece

Coleridge famously dubbed him a “motiveless malignity”. For the writer William Hazlitt, he was a man of “diseased intellectual activity”. The actor James Earl Jones described him as “the most complex character that Shakespeare ever created”. Rory Kinnear, about to take on this role for the National Theatre, puts it more colloquially: “He’s probably the biggest baddie of the lot.”

But what is it that ails Iago? The nasty piece of work responsible for the body count at the end of Othello, he is surely Shakespeare’s most disturbing villain. Other characters may do terrible things – Edmund in King Lear lies, cheats and schemes, Richard III kills countless people and boasts about it, Macbeth, too, slaughters his way to power – but there is rhyme and reason to their wickedness. They have motives and aims – and in the final instance they seem capable of remorse.

Iago, on the other hand, seems unfathomably evil. He is without compassion: he sets about destroying Othello’s happiness by persuading the general that his wife is unfaithful and he wrecks Cassio’s life by implicating him as the adulterer.

He does offer reasons: the hint that Othello may have slept with Iago’s own wife, Emilia; the fact that he was passed over for promotion. But the first seems deeply implausible and the second insufficient for the scale of his revenge.

And his retribution is vicious: a form of psychological torture, stoking other characters’ insecurities and ruining their peace of mind. He never pauses to reconsider and when his machinations end up with three murders and a suicide, Iago simply clams up and refuses to explain himself.

He’s hard to understand and harder still to like, yet his duplicitous brilliance has fascinated scholars and audiences and prompted actors to dig deep for sense. Antony Sher in 2004 emphasised the character’s racism; for Ewan McGregor (2007), the brotherly bond between Iago and Othello, forged on the battlefield, had broken.

Rory Kinnear, photographed this month at the National Theatre

Kinnear is now stepping into Iago’s creepy boots (along with Adrian Lester as Othello in Nicholas Hytner’s new production). I meet him during a lunch break from rehearsals. Looking at Kinnear, in his black jeans and grey sweatshirt, eating a plate of sausages, it is hard to equate this courteous, mild-mannered man with such an odious individual. And you can’t walk into a rehearsal room and play a motiveless malignity. So where do you start to crack a nut like Iago?

Kinnear suggests that you have to consider what has happened to Iago just before the play opens. “As with many great Shakespeare roles, the person you first meet has just had their life upturned,” he says. “At the beginning of the play he’s not hoping to kill everybody – he’s hoping to ruin Othello’s new-found happiness and to get the lieutenancy [that he thinks he is owed]. He’ll stop at that. But I think the big question to ask is, ‘What makes him keep going? Does he get intoxicated by success?’”

Kinnear, most recently seen on screen as M’s long-suffering sidekick Bill Tanner in the James Bond film Skyfall, is a superbly subtle actor, excellent at playing characters out of their comfort zone. His Hamlet, at the National Theatre in 2010, was a reasonable man gradually destroyed by a violent, unreasonable world; his Angelo in Measure for Measure (at the Almeida the same year) was a puritan poleaxed by desire. For him, the military context is very important in getting to grips with Iago.

He suggests that being denied promotion, for a life-long soldier such as Iago, must rankle bitterly. More importantly still, the military context may explain Iago’s lack of restraint. Hytner’s staging of Othello will update the action to a 21st-century military camp: the soldiers here may have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Iago’s destructive zeal begins to make sense, perhaps, if you consider what he may have seen. And the tragedy may resonate afresh for an audience increasingly familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder in today’s military.

“Othello and Iago have been fighting and going to wars for the last decade,” says Kinnear. “That sense of wounded psyches through exposure to great trauma is not something Shakespeare unpicks explicitly but we are trying to think about ... Iago has done many tours and he’s obviously been able to subsume a lot of emotional baggage. A little thing tips him over the edge ... I think he grows totally out of control and I don’t think the reality of it, particularly as a man desensitised to the whole range of what humans can do to each other, hits him until the end.

“There’s also the impact of the great dramatic non-event at the beginning of Act Two,” he adds. “The Turkish fleet, with whom we’re all geared up to have a big war, drown. So there’s no war and you have all these soldiers hanging around in a military camp, turning in on themselves.”

Villains fascinate, of course, partly because they give free rein to emotions most of us try to contain. “Everyone is fascinated by Iago because there is no stepping back, which everyone else would do,” says Kinnear. “And, as the audience, you are his sole confidant about what he is doing, and that enlistment can be quite intoxicating ... It puts the audience in the position where they both want him to stop it and to go on.

“It would be interesting to know what Hamlet and Iago would look like if you played them without the soliloquies and let an audience make up their own minds,” he adds. “They’d probably find Hamlet quite annoying and they’d like Iago.”

Iago is a consummate actor: he convinces everyone that he is a nice, trustworthy guy. Without the soliloquies that give the lie to that performance, the audience would probably be fooled too.

For James Earl Jones, who played Othello seven times, this is what makes Iago a tragic figure. He’s charming, intelligent, active, but, Jones observes in his Actors on Shakespeare book on Othello (2003), like Lucifer and Darth Vader, he falls from grace. Iago is as crazed with jealousy as Othello. It is his abuse of friendship that makes him so chilling, says Kinnear: “The way Iago drip-feeds his strategy, the way he incorporates new elements, the way he holds back other elements: it speaks of someone who knows the other person really well. He uses all the good aspects of friendship – the understanding, empathy and shared experience – to his own malignant ends.”

Kinnear, the son of actors (Roy Kinnear and Carmel Cryan) and author of a play of his own (The Herd, opening at London’s Bush Theatre in September), admits Iago is fun to play. But he adds that constant duplicity is also “quite hollowing”. Whatever reasons we may find for Iago’s behaviour, there remains something enigmatic about him.

“I think that’s the brilliance of the part and the play,” says Kinnear. “But criminals themselves often can’t or won’t give an explanation [of what they did]. Ian Brady [the Moors murderer] is still refusing to say where the bodies are buried.”

‘Othello’, National Theatre, London from April 16 ‘The Herd’, Bush Theatre, London from September 13

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