Richard Eyre has set the 2013 National Theatre production of Othello in a modern military garrison out in the middle east and the new setting fits it perfectly. It is tawdry, claustrophobic and full of tension. The barrack room drinking scene is perfectly choreographed by the fight director Kate Waters and there is a real sense of danger. Something is going to give- this is a place where bad things are waiting to happen. Richard Eyre’s direction is detailed and insightful. Everything has been very clearly thought through and there are no jarring notes. The verse speaking is exemplary. It is all completely believable and horribly real. There are a few minor decisions- just a few- that I might have questioned, but the choices made for the production all work. I am certainly not claiming to know better!
The character who benefits most from the change in setting is Rory Kinnear’s outstanding Iago. He is conniving, bitter and damaged by long army service which he does not feel has been properly rewarded. He is a second rate soldier who has already had more promotion than he deserves, he will never be anything else and it rankles. He plays on the weaknesses of others without any compunction- a man with no moral compass. This is Iago’s play, whatever the title says, and he is fascinating to watch.
Adrian Lester has a potentially harder job in this setting as Othello. Playing a modern general he cannot borrow his charisma from sweeping around in fine robes, he has to find it in himself and his own bearing as an actor. Adrian Lester has natural authority on stage and he uses this to great effect in the early scenes, creating a portrait of a charismatic leader who attracts admiration and respect easily from those around him. He is at ease in his own skin, happy and self assured. The man who Iago could never be. When this fine man falls apart, to the accompaniment of some of the best verse speaking you are ever likely to hear, it is painful to watch, as it should be. We feel the loss of a great spirit. It should never have happened but the clarity of the two central performances leave us in no doubt about how it did.
Olivia Vinall is a fine Desdemona, feisty, full of life and completely riveting in her death scene as we share her terror. It is easy to see why Othello was attracted to her. Few things are more satisfying than seeing a young actor get the break that they deserve and I’m sure that there will be a lot more fine performances ahead from her. I liked Nick Sampson too as Lodovico- a small part but his truthfulness and style was important as a representative of the Venetian court. Emilia is one of my favourite characters and Lyndsey Marshall was very convincing as an embittered army wife and soldier who had taken too much bullshit from those around her, especially her husband, for too long. The scene between Emilia and Desdemona before Desdemona’s death was beautifully done. I wish that Tom Robertson as Roderigo had been allowed to be less foolish and more touching- he is a fool but he is a fool for love of Desdemona and it is those genuine feelings that Iago makes use of.
This is a terrific production, well deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it. I’m glad that I was able to see it, even if only by live relay. I would have loved to be sitting in the Olivier.