It’s an interesting decision for the National Theatre to tackle Othello again when their last production in 2013 still looms large in the memory even a decade on and available via subscription service, National Theatre at Home. But it was a lifetime ago in theatre terms, under a previous Artistic Director that existed in a quite different cultural and political context to Clint Dyer’s equally contemporary but far darker perspective on a play about systemic racism and the social system stacked against not just Othello but the women of the play as well. And this is a production that recognises its place in the history of performance, scattering the stage with a digital montage of Othello posters and playbills across the centuries including the RSC’s notable version in 2015 with a black actor playing Iago and interpretations from all around the world. Co-designed by Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, as the audience take their seats, it’s clear that Othello continues to reinvent itself for every generation and that its central messages matter more than ever.
There are a number of striking decisions in this new production designed to emphasise how greatly the scales are weighted against Othello as his rise to power is stymied by jealousy and racial denigration. It may take some time before the audience see them all but the National has deliberately eschewed diversity in its casting making Giles Terrera the only person of colour in the cast, a decision that reflects Othello’s isolation in the play and must have created some interesting tones in the rehearsal room, particularly for the lead actor exploring the unusual position of this character, a self-made man who rises to a position of influence in a world that views his race with suspicion and disdain – and we note early on that the Duke of Venice happily takes advantage of Othello’s military prowess but pointedly refuses to shake his hand.
And Director, Dyer digs deep into this notion in an attempt to deconstruct the inevitability of Othello’s decline despite his soldierly successes. In a brief scene that could have been lifted from Coriolanus, Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst choreographs a sequence in which Othello is successively cheered by the crowd and then jeered as his popularity rapidly wanes. Over the course of the show, Dyer then expands this concept, inserting a bank of silent characters known only as the ‘System’ who become a physical manifestation of the status quo with a vested interest in destroying Othello. They lurk like malevolent spirits behind Iago as he unfolds his dastardly plans to the audience, showing signs of joy and rapture as he derails Othello’s marriage and unbalances his mind, while leaning in hungry for the drama as the tension rises.
It works very effectively, adding both a broader sense of the Venetian society that Iago and Othello represent, mirroring the Duke of Venice’s willingness to use the title character but abstain from him, while drawing out the feeling of an Establishment closing ranks, actively keeping people like Othello on the outside, destroying them if need be. Dyer arranges his intimidating Chorus around Chloe Lamford’s dramatically tiered stage, who, perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, may be driving the action or merely observing it. But the stillness of their chilling presence also speaks to the growing confusion in Othello’s mind, almost becoming the physical representation of the poison that infects him when the sinister System bears down on him in the final portion of the play as he feels a kind of spiritual possession take hold.
They reach their apotheosis with the final deal done over the bodies of the dead. And it adds to the tragedy that, knowing the truth about Iago’s game, no one is then sorry about or for Othello. Here, quite the opposite, after the frenzy of that multiply-murderous scene, the remaining white men forget about the dead laying before them and merely offer new jobs to one another with congratulations. The final insult to Othello that his death, like his life, means nothing to those in the System because power is restored to those who always have it.
Although it may be Dyer’s intention to point the effects of the System towards Othello, the final section of this production also makes clear its effects on the play’s three female roles – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca – who also suffer its suffocating strictures (quite literally in Desdemona’s case). Women in Othello are treated little better than ‘The Moor’ himself and perhaps even a little worse in some ways. They are routinely disbelieved, suspected of treachery and wantonness and called ‘strumpets’. The plot is built around Desdemona’s supposed adultery and her vibrant sexuality which Shakespeare writes about often in graphic terms, referencing her body and her lusts first for her husband and later for multiple men either accused with or coveting her. She is pitched as a betrayer from the start, deceiving her father to run off and marry Othello which causes a parting between them and after which he dispatches a warning to her new husband about her trustworthiness, a warning that hangs over her character throughout the play.
Notable too is the additional domestic violence subtext that Dyer adds to this production, making Emilia, wife of Iago and maid to Desdemona, a quiet victim of abuse. Appearing with a bandaged elbow at first but later with bruises, her deference to him becomes an important motivational device in which Emilia becomes enmeshed in Iago’s plot against Othello. But it lays the groundwork for Othello’s own acts of violence towards his wife, creating a model for male brutality against women that leaves them with no recourse to justice. Pointedly, no one believes in the virtue of either woman until it is too late.
Bianca too, though featured only briefly, endures taunts about her own chastity and decency, hauled away by soldiers before she can reveal the truth with Shakespeare equally uninterested in what happens to her. The presence of the System is then a multi-layered one that seeks only to protect its own, showing no grief or care for the fate of the people it tramples over so long as it triumphs and is sustained. These harbingers of fate separate this Othello from the National’s 2013 version, reflecting very contemporary concerns about social justice and the inbuilt biases of modern power structures that ultimately deflect and deter even the smallest incursions.
Dyer and Lamford’s vision is a gloomy one, a world of shadows in a classical meets dystopian-utility design that draws out the embedded political processes stacked against Othello and the women, dwarfing and enclosing them even when they think they are the height of their power or happiness. Lamford has created a tiered set, almost ampitheatrical that nods to Greek and Roman democratic tradition upon which the System imperiously sit, watch and guide the action like Olympian Gods observing their instrument Iago. There is something solid and unshakable about the design, a stone edifice that seems carved into the stage representing millenia of stable, unmoving and unchanging power resting with the elite, one that by default creates a pit or arena at the stage level where individuals from outside the System contend for victory and place. Yet, before the story even begins Lamford’s imposing structures shows us that they will always lose.
Michael Vale’s costumes dovetail very neatly into this concept, using military uniforms for men and women as a base but making them feel like everyday wear, a utilitarian consistency in how everyone must dress that suggests a rigid right-wing despotism of the kind that George Orwell might have written. The most obvious allusion is to fascist blackshirts which underpins the racial tension in the play and Vale exclusively uses blue and black in his colour scheme, combining 1930s tailoring with the simplicity of futuristic and orderly design to enhance Lamford, Dunn and Green’s notions of a sad timelessness in which the story of Othello plays out again and again. Vale gives the protagonist only one moment of true power in the play, when he appears after his wedding wearing a tunic that suggest his cultural heritage – also in midnight blue – matched by Desdemona as the pair are momentarily ascendant and in sync before their attempted conformation and assimilation consumes them.
Dyer controls all of this really nicely and while there is no sense of urgency in the performances – with a three hour running time – the methodical destruction of Othello by degrees unfolds with precision, giving space and clarity to all of the complex crossover plots and devices that Shakespeare uses. Iago’s plan are complicated and multi-dimensional with no pre-determined direction at the beginning of the play. Instead he tries a few things out on Othello and others to see if his venom will work and when it does amplifies his plan accordingly. This production is very good at making those moments particularly clear and marrying together the emotional manipulation and linguistic tricks that Iago employs with the trail of physical evidence he creates as the decisive handkerchief is passed between characters. Notable too is Iago’s influence on others and his ability to coerce not just his wife but Michael Cassio and Roderigo which are well presented here.
Terera’s Othello is a complex figure, a doomed tragic hero unable to account for the very different forces that assail him, not recognising the gradations of difference between his own internal jealousy, and the external influences of racism and the System willing him to fail in marriage, job and status. It makes his Othello extremely trusting, taking things at face value be it his wife’s professions of love or Iago’s words, and as a consequence he slips very easily into paranoia which soon consumes him. And Terera charts that descent confidently, creating a sense of the voices plaguing him as doubts and fears drive him to a form of insanity. That this then connects to the masculine aggression for which the Venetians use him makes sense and Terera feeds this into the production’s take on domestic violence and the effect of male rage acted upon female bodies and reputations.
Paul Hilton’s Iago is given leave to be a big, bombastic villain that seems to suit the grandiosity of Lambert’s surroundings, making his character something of the graphic novel baddie. Hilton relishes every word of Iago’s speeches, enjoying the mischief he makes and even when finally caught out, laughing dismissively and with great self-satisfaction. Hilton nonetheless makes his Iago tangibly intimidating, using every inch of his height to tower over Tanya French as the cowed Emilia and dominate any space he is in. That this Iago can choose to stand unnoticed in the shadows while equally forceful when he needs to be be makes him doubly dangerous, leaving the audience in no doubt of the physical strength that matches his vicious oration.
Among the rest of the cast, Rosy McEwen does her best with the fairly thankless role of Desdemona, a little too giggly in the first half perhaps but certainly demonstrating a fighting spirit in the second. French is suitably ambiguous as Emilia who well presents the symptoms of abuse that appear as devotion to her husband but she is ruled by fear, while Joe Bolland makes much of Roderigo as a creepy chancer chasing Desdemona and Rory Fleck Byrne makes a dignified patsy in Cassio. Together with the Ensemble who flesh out the System, the cast convincingly create a sense of society keeping Othello at bay using gesture and body language consistently to isolate and ultimately shape his destruction.
This is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Dyer’s perspective, which has its Press Night this week, is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before. Othello continues to resonate not only for its jealousy themes but because now, as in 1604, while the System remains, those on the outside of it will never be safe.
Othello is playing at the National Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.