Although it is one of the more famous Shakespeare plays, you don’t get that many productions of Othello in London. There are as many Hamlets as you could possibly want to see including some very starry ones in recent years; a spectacular David Tennant, an apparently competent Jude Law and an acclaimed Rory Kinnear. But not so many Othellos – why? Maybe it’s the slightly tenuous plot; the cause of Iago’s revenge and the ease with which Othello believes him seem a bit unlikely. Perhaps the racial element of the play is harder to approach, or perhaps everyone just likes Hamlet more. Whatever the reason, the current National Theatre production has set the standard for the future.
This modern version, set largely in a military base in Cyprus, is exactly how you’d imagine modern warfare looks. Everyone wears sand-coloured combats and marches between characterless concrete blocks – almost a bank canvass, waiting for Iago to inject the drama into it. A military base is a claustrophobic environment so, for the interior scenes, entire rooms are moved onto the stage and the action happens in these contained boxes. There’s a particularly brilliant use of the base toilets for the famous handkerchief scene in which Othello is led to believe Cassio is bragging about an affair with his wife. All of this cleverly ensures that the characters and their behaviours are at the forefront.
Needless to say Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago are superb. Lester’s range is excellent, capturing Othello’s ease and happiness in the early scenes, building to jealous rage and recrimination, before crumbling into guilt and grief at the end. He’s so convincing that you almost want to shout out to him to stop being so stupid. Kinnear meanwhile is a menacing Iago; on the surface he acts the supportive friend whilst brilliantly stage-managing Othello’s destruction. Very quickly, Kinnear’s Iago goes beyond his petty revenge for not being promoted, and you see the spite of a man who destroys these people because it’s so easy and so enjoyable. I was almost rooting for him!
There’s almost nothing wrong with this production; Desdemona hardly seemed worth all the bother – wet, whiney and prone to unnecessary PDAs in front of Othello’s colleagues. And my fantastic second row seat (thankyou £12 Travelex season), meant I could see the characters still breathing heavily after they’d died. But if you can get a ticket, definitely go and see this before it closes, or catch it this autumn through NT Live.