Nicholas Hytner’s latest production at the National Theatre deserves all the plaudits it has received. The acting is never short of breathtaking, setting and scene changes are cunning, and not a single word of the brilliant script is wasted.
Most strikingly, the play feels like a contemporary drama. Shakespeare manages to iterate ageless emotions in beautifully subtle ways, but so often actors seem to be reciting pretty poetry rather than genuinely engaging with the script. However, this cast makes the words sound effortless, dropping off the tongue like modern speech.
No one achieves this nore convincingly than Rory Kinnear, whose Iago feels more like a cockney wheeler-dealer than a traditional Shakespearean foe. Iago is intensely jealous of Othello and hatches a shrewd plan to destroy him, ultimately leading to tragedy. Kinnear spits out the character’s envious views with a cold resentment and the audience is hit by every foul look. However, Iago’s cruelty and aggression are tempered by a charming wit. Especially in his manipulation of the feckless sidekick, Roderigo (Tom Robertson), Kinnear draws the audience in, making his later crimes all the more appalling.
Many other phenomenal performances stand out. Adrian Lester (Othello) is particularly impressive, his charismatic aura at the beginning of the play giving way to confusion and grief as Iago destroys his life (through false accusations of his newlywed’s fidelity). Lester is extremely believable as Othello, in command of the tremendous emotions which the character pours out as the play progresses. The tragedy hits even harder thanks to Lyndsey Marshal’s heartfelt performance as Emilia, Iago’s wife who unknowingly contributes to his evil plan.
The production is set in a modern war zone much like one would imagine a military base in Afghanistan. Though not an original idea, this complements the contemporary feel and makes the Shakespearean tongue even less noticeable. The walls of the barracks are shifted by troops in between scenes, keeping up the pace with very slick transitions – important for a production lasting over three hours. Each room in the barracks is very simple, providing no distraction from the audience’s focus on the characters.
This Othello is one of the finest peaces of theatre I have ever seen, if not the best. Lester and Kinnear are two of the greatest actors of their generation, and the whole cast is fully deserving of the numerous standing ovations they have received. I could not recommend a play more.
Othello will be at the National Theatre, London, until the 5th of October. Tickets range from £12 to £48 and are available here.
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