Riveting performances despite the distracting military setting in Othello

PUBLISHED: 13:57 02 May 2013 | UPDATED: 13:57 02 May 2013

at the National Theatre

at the National Theatre

Archant

Othello

National Theatre

Othello can be a hard to love tragic figure – prone to self-aggrandisement and bombast.

But Nicholas Hytner’s involving, well-paced production also robs him of grandeur and dignity – he crouches in a loo cubicle to overhear Cassio’s supposed confession, noisily throws up at the thought of his wife’s adultery, and murders Desdemona in a cheap Ikea bed.

Adrian Lester, with his quiet charisma, soldierly physicality and lucid verse speaking counters with a subtle and moving performance.

But at times he’s acting against the grain of a resolutely naturalistic contemporary production which downplays Othello’s status – and racial prejudice – and foregrounds class, and the calulations of Rory Kinnear’s chippy cockney Iago.

Kinnear wrings more humour from the villain’s absurd paranoia and envy than I’ve yet seen, but at the expense of the menace and pity of the piece.

A decade ago, Hytner directed Lester in a landmark Henry V transposed to the Iraq conflict.

But while that undoubtedly is a play about war, here the trappings of the modern military, prefab containers, concrete and strip lighting, are imposed upon one about love and insecurity.

Vacuum

Rather Hytner highlights the absence of war, and into the boredom vacuum of idle soldiers flows Cassio’s bar-room brawl, Iago’s poisoning of Othello’s love and all that follows.

This interpretation clarifies some aspects – Othello’s transgressive marriage is overlooked by the Senate because he’s needed to defend the state.

But the determined banality of Vicki Mortimer’s set loses something in translation; Iago hatches plots at a computer, people hand brown files to each other, and William Chubb’s poignant Brabantio breaks down in a cramped emergency cabinet room where performers shuffle around office chairs to hit their marks.

With his tight, cold half-smile Kinnear gives a riveting portrait of a man who poses as the salt of the earth while nursing a slightly mad compulsion to besmirch the daily beauty in other’s lives that makes him feel ugly.

Lester nails the contrast between assured leader and insecure lover, convincingly vulnerable to Iago’s suggestions.

In the tricky final act, tenderly kissing his doomed wife and offering his own epitaph he achieves the dignity that has eluded him earlier.

Tom Robertson offers amusing support as a hooray Henry Roderigo and Jonathan Bailey is a credibly flawed Cassio.

But in honesty I could have done without the buzzing helicopters and battle fatigues.

Until further notice.

Bridget Galton

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