The National Theatre has built it’s reputation on bringing world class productions to the people, giving everyone access to this sometimes elite world of the theatre. Othello is often regarded, as one of the Bard’s most sophisticated plays is reduced to a tale of jealousy; unfounded and unsympathetic.
Updated to the modern day, this production including a London pub, desert camouflage and a heavy riff inspired soundtrack are all thrust upon the Olivier stage. The National is well known for its compelling versions of the Bard’s classic plays with its stellar casts to match, but in many ways this version just did not work.
I confess after realising that the production was in Modern dress, to which there was a disgruntled groan from some of us purists; it then took me a few minutes to lose my initial confusion at the presence which fifty feet below I convinced myself that there was some sort of a Wayne Rooney impersonator, complete with accent (I was standing at the back of the circle, due to the huge demand for ticket sales). But it was in fact the great Rory Kinnear, who had bought along his growing number of fans since starring in big blockbusters such as Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. Having been lucky enough to see his Hamlet, (also a National production), I thought that Iago would be a challenge that all his talents would easily devour, he largely delivered well, apart from in maintaining a consistent accent, (moving from cockney to a tinge of South African at one point). But his particular type of evil vindictiveness did not gel well in it’s setting, nor did many of the events of the play. Othello, is known for treacherous fable of jealousy, misguided trust and of course racism, but in this setting of the modern day army, complete with a desert compound serving as the main setting the issues of isolation, racism and power struggles did not translate all that well.
Adrian Lester’s Othello did well in playing the poor puppet that is unknowingly strung along by Iago. However, in many ways, his Othello did not translate as a victim of Iago’s – he was not isolated by his skin colour or age as the cast was well mixed in both ways. So all I kept asking myself was, what on earth has he got to complain about? The female leads were probably the saving grace, with both women depicted as the true victims of the men’s egos, but also strong enough to fight for the truth and justice in their final moments.
This production seems to have taken more of the military stance of things, choosing to show the reason for Othello’s jealousy, and why he took such extreme actions was because the military was all he knew and that he could not be expected to think of Iago as anything other than truthful. The audience’s sympathy was lacking as Othello looked as equally foolish as Roderigo, who was played with much hilarious alacrity (Tom Robertson). However, he was worthy of the audience’s “pity”, whereas this Othello (in my opinion) was not.
Despite some of its pitfalls, this production is well worth seeing, as it highlights some of the other aspects of the play that the traditional, racial portrayal of Othello overshadows.
Performances are largely sold out, but if you’re willing to do an early morning commute to London, day tickets ranging from £5-10 are available. Get in well before the box office opens to be in with a chance of getting a seat.
Othello runs until 5th October, and will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the country as part of NT Live on 26th September.