Posted by Sari
One of the drawbacks of living two hours ahead of Greenwich mean time is that when the National Theatre began streaming their shows in cinemas, the timing proved to be a problem for Finnkino. Now we get only a selection of the NT Live performances, and after the fact. Still, much better than nothing as this outing once again proved.
Nicholas Hytner has made a name for himself for his modernised Shakespeare productions at National and his this years hit, Othello, continues the trend. Sometimes the modern dress can be a (tired) gimmick, sometimes a way to bridge the gap between modern audiences and the Shakespearean language, and sometimes, like here, it can bring the play into a focus in a way that a period production never could.
This Othello emphasizes the military context of the play. After the first act on the streets of Venice and bunkered command centre the action takes place on a closed military base in Cyprus. The war against the Turk has ended before it really started, and we are left with a bunch of soldiers with nothing to do, confined inside their harsh modern compound. It is a perfect claustrophobic set for Iagos words to work their poison.
The modern setting also allows an interpretation which is less about race and the ugly racist stereotype of bestial blackness that the play often enforces. Here Othello, masterfully played by Adrian Lester, is first and foremost - not to mention very self-consciously - a soldier. That is where his self-confidence comes from, that is what he is valued for. That is why he he believes his ”honest Iago” - a fellow soldier – and that is why loving Desdemona too well forces him out of his comfort zone and into a tailspin.
The fact that Olivia Vinall's Desdemona is even more ethereal, young and naive than in some I have seen emphasizes the disconnect between Othello's military world and her civilian one. In a modern army base, Desdemona with her bad posture, flip-flops and sweatpants is even more of an anomaly: a disruption to the routines of the soldiers and distraction to the commander.
Iago is often played as an evil genius, a puppet-master expertly tugging the strings of other characters. Kinnear takes a different approach. He is angry and wants revenge, but the whole play feels more like a cunning plan slipping slowly out of control. He is inchoately goading reactions out of other characters, and when in the end he is left for a moment to stare his handiwork the look on his face is more baffled and incredulous than satisfied.
The key scene in the play is the one where Othello eavesdrops on Cassio and Iago and then succumbs to an epileptic fit; after that there is a sort of sordid inevitability to the rest of the play. Here the scene is played under the sickly white light of a barrack's men's room. Othello is eavesdropping the conversation from a toilet cubicle, and the scene ends when the mocking Iago standing over the prostate form of his general, downs a glass of water we thought he meant for Othello. The callous, unexpected act forces an uncomfortable laughter out of the audience. It is difficult to imagine the scene better realized.
For his credit, Hytner manages to keep the tension going even after the turning point and gives us a powerful last scene: Othello’s violence, Desdemona's desperate fright, Emilia's guilty, volcanic anger all make compelling viewing, and is made even more poignant by the Willow-song scene preceding it. The camaraderie between Emilia and Desdemona who are here sharing a beer on rickety lawn chairs is palpable, and both Vinall and Lyndsey Marshall act the hell out of the scene.
As with Hytner's Hamlet, this is a great, contemporary interpretation of a classic, and in this case a truly problematic classic. The production made Othello more coherent than the text actually is, and wrought excellent performances form the cast. Extra thanks go to the director of the NT Live production, who kept the action all the time dynamic without visibly forcing an extra layer between the viewers in the cinema and the actors on the stage.