Othello. Live relay from the National Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 26-09-13


Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Adrian Lester as Othello.
Production photograph by Gary Calton.

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.

Othello. Sheffield Crucible. 24-09-11

Photo by Johann Persson.

While the play may be called Othello as a recognition that it is his tragedy it is Iago’s play and this has never been clearer than it is in Sheffield Crucible’s current production. Dominic West gives a masterly performance in the part. He is completely in control, playing the audience as well as Othello, able to bring out the audacious comedy in the part as well as the manipulative, carefully thought out evil which cares for nothing and nobody but himself. He watches and waits, eyes glittering, chooses his moment and strikes. His victim, Clarke Peters is a very moving Othello whose descent into jealousy and despair is very believable and human. There are things that you could wish to see from his performance which are not there, perhaps greater clarity in his verse speaking and a more magisterial  presence in the early scenes, but I am loath to criticise a performance of such honesty and commitment. The scenes between them where Iago is convincing Othello of Desdemona’s guilt are chilling and perfectly done. They have worked together extensively before and it shows.

Photo by Johann Persson

I also enjoyed Brodie Ross as Roderigo, a lovesick fool who is all too easy prey for Iago, and Gwilym Lee as Cassio, a good honourable man who just doesn’t watch his back quite enough. There are two outstanding female performances from Lily James as Desdemona and Alexandra Gilbreath as Emilia. Lily James is very beautiful, always a good start when you are playing Desdemona, but this is by no means her only asset. She is like a beautiful, delicate porcelain doll, all too easily broken, unable to comprehend what is happening to her until it is far too late and completely in thrall to her charismatic older husband. Emilia is also in thrall to her husband Iago. She has been taking his cruel jibes for too long, colluding in his evil without thinking too deeply about it, and hatred and love for him both run very close to the surface with her. It is a wonderful piece of reacting as we see her despising the bluff Yorkshire surface wit that Iago produces to entertain his mates, knowing all too well the man underneath. There is a whole marriage laid out  there, clearly visible, as she watches him with a mixture of admiration and contempt. When the destruction of her beloved Desdemona becomes the final straw her pent up anger and resentment are an unstoppable force.

This is a very faithful, traditional production set in the period it was written, with a beautifully lit set made of a starred tiled floor and crumbling grey stone walls. There is one particularly beautiful piece of lighting when the edges of the star on the floor are lit from above with great accuracy, defining a smaller central space. Lucy Carter the lighting designer has done a fine job, she has worked on a lot of ballet and opera and working on a great Shakespeare tragedy fits into that pattern perfectly. The direction by Daniel Evans is straightforward and unfussy allowing the actors and the showy but intimate space of the Crucible stage to do their work.

I hope that such a great start to her career pays dividends for Lily James, I enjoyed watching her as she seized her chance. I also hope that Dominic West stays on a big stage where he clearly belongs and my long admiration for Alexandra Gilbreath is confirmed. It is always good to see a great part which is somewhat underwritten get the performance which it deserves. This is not a flawless production then, but my goodness there is a lot to admire.

Othello. Northern Broadsides. SJT Scarborough. 17-03-09

Production photograph of Lennie Henry as Othello by Tristram Kenton.

I queued for an hour and forty minutes to get my tickets- a rare event for a play at the SJT. There had been a lot of publicity and people were anxious to see how Lenny Henry would tackle Othello. In the after show talk he said wryly that he thought some might have been hoping for a car crash, but the people I spoke to in the queue were just excited at the thought of seeing him do it. So expectations were running high.

What we got was a bit of a curates egg of a production, and Lenny himself was definitely one of the good bits. He has the voice and the physical presence the part needs and he was good in the early scenes rather than great. As the play moved on and he was able to show more raw emotion he came into his own and he always spoke the verse clearly without ever overplaying. While one or two of the cast got unwanted laughs from a few members of the audience (no fault of theirs) he never did and that was a credit to him. He was stylish and restrained. Not a great Othello then, but a very good one and certainly a brave one given that it was his first time on stage as an actor.

I was a little disappointed with Conrad Nelson’s Iago. He understood the part but his interpretation lacked clarity, especially in the verse speaking. Barry Rutter overplayed as Brabantio, but given that he was angry for a fair bit of the time this didn’t matter too much! There was more to Roderigo and Emilia than Matt Connor and Maeve Larkin managed to show. Emilia is a tough, cynical downtrodden (perhaps abused) wife and while she spoke the verse well there wasn’t the weight behind the performance to convey this. The pick of the bunch, for me, was Jessica Harris as Desdemona. Desdemona can be a bit wet if she isn’t played well but this performance had charm, wit and a feisty quality which made you feel what she might have become had she lived. She would have been a good wife for Othello as she matured. The scenes which she had with Othello were very well done, touching and believable.

The direction was sometimes a little unbalanced. The forward motion of the play was held up rather too much by an overlong drinking scene for instance, and I’m sure that greater clarity in some of the characterisation and verse speaking could have been helped by a bit more sharp well considered advice.

A very worthwhile evening. Good to see bravery rewarded and a young actress who deserved it getting her shot at a great part.