Othello (NT Live)

Othello (National Theatre Live)

19 October 2015 (Mon), Tokyo cinema

I loved Adrian Lester a few years back in Red Velvet as a 19th-century actor playing Othello, so I wasn’t going to miss him in the real thing. With direction by Nicholas Hytner and the added attraction of Rory Kinnear as Iago, my expectations were high.

My heart sank when the curtains opened to Iago and Roderigo in modern street clothes hanging around outside a pub to some loud music, signaling that this was going to be another one of those conceits where the director squeezes Shakespeare into whatever concept suits his latest fancy. But this one actually works extremely well: the assembly at the duke’s residence becomes a boardroom meeting, the campsites are modern army installations, the scene where Othello overhears Iago and Cassio talk about the handkerchief was done in a camp latrine, and so forth. I don’t know if they adjusted the script to fit the new setting, but there wasn’t a false note anywhere. I’m not so sure about the idea of making Emilia a soldier, which seems pointless, and it wasn’t entirely convincing that she would say nothing about the handkerchief when she sees how upset Desdemona is after losing it (maybe that’s Shakespeare’s fault). Also, the presence of various black soldiers in the cast, though reasonable enough for the updated setting, dilutes Othello’s uniqueness within the show, especially given the numerous mentions of his race. But those are small gripes. The direction was naturalistic and smooth, the story was always crystal clear, and the tension was beautifully sustained from start to finish. The set was composed of large concrete blocks that were shifted around fluidly to reveal barracks, offices, bathrooms and such. The latrine was a particularly good touch, though we have to accept Bianca running into the men’s room to chew out her lover (she is Italian, so we’ll chalk it up to her emotions). I noticed at one point the officer was holding a document in Arabic, which seemed curious since he’s supposed to be an Italian in modern Cyprus fighting the Turks. I wonder what that was about. In any case, all in all, it was one of the best and most natural modern-dress productions of Shakespeare I can remember seeing.

Best of all, the acting was of a very high order. Rory Kinnear is hands down the best Iago I’ve ever seen. He captures the character’s motivation in superbly underplayed style and was completely convincing in every way. The early scenes are crucial, since the depths of the character’s evil can be hard to fathom – his fury comes basically from being passed over for a promotion, which wouldn’t on its own justify this level of scorched-earth revenge. Kinnear made it all work and was the real key to the production. Lester was tremendous as well from his initial bluster to his mounting jealousy and blind rage to his final heartbreaking anguish. His only slip was the fainting sequence in the latrine, which seemed contrived. That was a surprise considering how natural he was otherwise. Overall he was superb, no better than when he was dealing with the gnawing doubts over Desdemona’s faithfulness, which built so intensely to its climax. The best of the rest were Olivia Vinall as Desdemona, especially in her tense final scene, and Jonathan Bailey as Cassio, but the entire cast was excellent. The only exception was a somewhat exaggerated performance from the dimwitted Roderigo, though maybe that worked better in the theater. One impressive feature that applied to everyone in the cast (and really to British actors in general) was their impeccable diction, a big help especially when dealing with Shakespeare.

The camerawork was fine as usual, though I do wish there were a few extra-long shots showing the full stage as seen by the audience for a more theatrical perspective. I was disappointed in the interval show, which was filmed rather than performed live. It showed the rehearsals and wasn’t uninteresting in itself, but the whole idea behind these Live films is to preserve the sense of the show unfolding before our eyes, even when we’re watching it months later. I’m not sure if this was done in the theater or substituted for later broadcasts – maybe there was a problem with the original interval show – but I hope it’s a one-off.

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