28th September, 2013
‘One that loved not wisely but too well.’
Here I go again. I’ve lost count of the number of school visits to Shakespeare productions. I tried to resist seeing this production, despite a kind invitation to do so by a friend. I remember subjecting students to the filmed version of Laurence Olivier’s 1965 production in the 70s when videos were a new teaching tool. I writhed in deep embarrassment as Olivier hammed for England, his white eyeballs rolling madly in a weird blue / green / black greasepaint-shiny face with a slash of bright red lipstick. Such was the histrionic style: I puzzled over the Black & White minstrelsy.
Seduction is effective if prolonged so how could I resist Adrian Lester (last seen in Henry V, 10 years ago) and Rory Kinnear, coupled with one of my favourite directors, Nicholas Hytner whose direction of the anti-Iraq Henry V and later, Hamlet I loved. Once again NT Live affords me a missed opportunity.
The play opens to the news that Othello is recently married to Desdemona, half his age. He is appointed leader of a military operation to defend Cyprus from the Turks. Iago, his ensign, is passed over for promotion in favour of young Cassio. Immediately the importance of rank and hierarchy that provokes such envy casts a shadow over events to come.
Iago (Rory Kinnear) remains the invidious catalyst throughout. ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am.’ Iago finds that people who are what they seem are foolish. Kinnear’s camp-thuggish tones are so finely tuned that his dark humour engages the audience who then immediately revile him for his moral vacuity. We are drawn, too, into Iago’s sporting with Roderigo (Tom Robertson) who is in love with Desdemona. Robertson’s portrayal of the gullible, wimpy, privileged nerd adds a welcome touch of comedy.
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 the amplified call of the muezzin can be heard. Environmental changes mirror the shift in pace and mood. Grandeur outside Brabantio’s house complement Othello’s controlled dignified entry, and confirm his renown for which Shakespeare prepares us. Transition is slick into the interior for the War Cabinet where Othello is called to manage the offensive.
Next, we slide into to the hot and dusty military camp of Act Two. The conceit of the modern military compound setting is bleak; within, the confines of the barracks offers a claustrophobic intensity of the army camp life. Here, soldiers let off their bestial instincts when the war is effectively cancelled. Everybody wears battle fatigues; even Emilia, Iago’s wife and maid to Desdemona, is a soldier. Every time Emilia stands sentry as squaddie security to her mistress, she appears to guard an Abu Ghraib prison – a hint to Desdemona’s fate. Thus, violence always simmers near the surface. The marked fragility of Desdemona next to the soldiers, together with Iago’s dissembling is a cerebral crucible which anchors this dramatic psychological thriller. Olivia Vinall (Desdemona) is the only civilian in sight. She is in part convincing but, perhaps rather fey, lacking any weighty presence from the erotic chemistry between her and Othello.
The stage environment remains plausible throughout. Military consultation from war veteran, Major General Jonathan Shaw adds credibility to the importance of the military moral code of ethics: ‘Othello has every reason to trust Iago implicitly. Betrayal is the most heinous of military sins, so it is the last to be suspected.’ So the scene where Iago persuades Othello to murder his newly-wed wife is raw. It is this comradeship that is necessary for Othello to believe Iago’s lies. Therefore, Othello’s(Adrian Lester) transition from a dignified soldier to a tortured psyche is both powerful and convincing. As Iago reminds the audience: ‘Not everyone can be a master, nor can all masters be truly followed’.
Kinnear’s delivery of Iago’s misogyny is palpable from his indifference to Emilia to the way he feigns comfort to Desdemona as she bemoans Othello’s change of affection. Iago absent-mindedly pats her arm, her back as if she was an unusual pet. Iago, who is verbally agile and twisted throughout, remains menacingly silent at the end when asked why he has committed the terrible deeds. Only the audience knows why – Cassio, who has never been near a battlefield, has been promoted over him. The only jealous person is not Othello, but Iago.
Hytner ‘s production reminds us that ‘Othello ‘is a perfect example of how Shakespeare’s plays stand the test of time. The production confronts us with whom we really are when all the social façade is stripped. Our consciousness of race and racism, too is raised. No one is actively racist except perhaps Brabantio( Desdemona’s father) who is predisposed to hate foreigners. Interestingly, Othello is one of two plays (the other Merchant of Venice) set in Venice which exposes and destroys the outsider. Othello’s suicide is a kind of martyrdom, a last act of service to the state; he kills the only foe he has left to conquer: himself.
If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10).