Last night, Kath and I went to see “Othello” at the National Theatre. Turned out it was the last night. We also had front row seats, so we got to experience the performance in full effect.
And what a performance it was. I’ve seen a few productions of “Othello” over the years, but I can’t remember one as intense as this. Being in the front row helped, but I think the intensity also stemmed from the stark, modern, military setting in which the play was set. This was Iraq, Afghanistan. No comforts, nothing lavish. Brutal surroundings encouraging brutal emotions.
“Othello” is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, but there is also something absurd about Othello’s rapid descent into jealous rage and madness. Suspension of disbelief is seriously required. There is also a perverse effect in the play, where, depending on how it is played, Iago, the villain, can easily become the hero. I remember the first time I saw the play, either in the late seventies, before my A levels, or early eighties, with Donald Sinden as a blacked-up Othello, that Iago was so sleek, clever, amusing, evil, that the audience went onto his side. Othello became the fool, easily mocked. That’s one way of enjoying the play. But last night’s performance was in a different place altogether.
The genius of putting the play into a modern setting, the military setting with which we have become all too familiar, was that it took the scepticism you might have about the plot head on. We can relate to the stress, the violence, the intensity of modern warfare, because we see it so much on our TVs. It’s no surprise, in the circumstances, that people behave in extreme ways.
The modern setting also brought out the power of parts of the play that normally just seem like devices to get the plot going. Cassio’s drunken rage early on, having been tricked by Iago into drinking more than he can take, is an incredibly powerful scene, soldiers letting loose, chanting, brawling. Being in the front row made it all the more intense. It was a Friday night in an English provincial town, or a ruckus at a football match. Real world.
And it is this real world into which Othello and his newly-wedded wife, Desdemona, are plunged. A general bringing his wife on tour is not normal and the abnormality of it is conveyed in the reactions of the assembled soldiers as Othello greets Desdemona on their arrival in Cyprus. You know it is going to go wrong. Desdemona, played beautifully and feistily by Olivia Vinall, is obedient and naive, pressing Cassio’s case after he has been dismissed from his post in a way that only fits Iago’s designs.
And what of Iago, played here by Rory Kinnear? Always at the heart of the play, Othello’s companion turned nemesis. Hero or villain? Pure evil or or bitter reject? In control of events or chasing developments once he has set them off? Do we sympathise him or hate him or fall somewhere in between? He is so central to the story that the play could have been called “Iago” rather than “Othello”.
Kinnear plays Iago as a severely troubled man. The advantage of being in the front row was that I could see the trembling lip, the internal strife, the self-loathing as well as the hatred for his general. There is no humour in this Iago, no comic relief, other than the natural absurdity of some of the plot developments. Not only is he bitter at being passed over for promotion, but the suspicion that Othello may have had an affair with his wife, Emelia, is played strongly. It is a brilliant performance, but one in which you have no sympathy for the character. Iago in this performance is a blunt, unsubtle character, who hardly seems clever enough to devise his boss’s downfall.
I must admit that from time to time I wished for some of the wit, the subtlety of some of the Iagos I’d seen before. That’s not a criticism of Kinnear’s performance, which was superb. It was just a hankering for a bit of light relief in a dark world.
And then there was Adrian Lester’s Othello. Truly magnificent. He played the war-hardened general turned into loving husband, the racial outsider in the Venetian court, superbly, edgily. His descent into jealous madness, as Iago fed him with lies and distractions, was never ridiculous, as it could be. It was instead like a slow torture, as his confidence evaporated, replaced by an agonised uncertainty and building rage. Close up you could really see, and live, the transformation. Every time he punched the wall, you hurt with him.
I couldn’t help likening Adrain Lester as Othello to Barack Obama – there’s a kind of physical resemblance, I think; and the travails Obama faces at the moment, with the Tea Party Republicans trying to shut down the US government, feels like a different but similar set of complexities to the ones that Othello faced. Both outsiders, with racial biases probably at the heart of the opposition to them. Obama a rather more subtle man, capable of dealing with his internal enemies, unlike Othello. But unjustly treated, nonetheless.
The wonder of Shakespeare: that a play written in the early 17th century can have such resonance for our society today. A play that we – and the directors and actors – can interpret in so many different ways. But with a central truth:
O beware my Lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on…