O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on ~ Othello, Act 3, sc. 3
I’ve waited ten years to see Adrian Lester on stage. As a poor undergraduate back in 2003, I couldn’t quite afford the trip to London to see him play Henry V and, in the absence of the recent ‘live theatre in the cinema’ concept, I missed the opportunity to see it. So, when I heard that he was going to be taking the lead in Othello at the National Theatre, I was pretty determined not to miss out again. But expectations were also running high: I’d waited ten years. Would I be disappointed?
Quite simply, no. In a gut and heart wrenching performance, matched by every member of the cast, this performance of Othello had me captivated from beginning to end. It was a stunningly physical and subtly emotional performance that left me exhausted in that amazing way that only live theatre can do. I can only imagine the physical and mental fitness needed by the company to act that day in and day out.
I must confess that I have struggled with Othello as a play. From the performances I’ve seen (stage and screen), I’ve never ‘got it’. Call me a Philistine, but I couldn’t understand Iago’s motivation to be so nasty, or Othello’s willingness to believe Iago’s suggestions. I’d always found Othello’s gullibility unconvincing. With this performance, I was right there; I understood. In a world where trust is the defining principle, the possibility of trusting and mistrusting the wrong people is of the utmost importance. It is truly life or death. This is emphasised by the military context of the play, often lost in performances, but fundamental to Nicholas Hytner’s production, where its continual presence provides the context for understanding how Othello goes from besotted lover to jealous murderer in what seems like such a short space of time. The biggest need in the army is trust, without it the company’s solidarity ceases to exist. Little wonder, perhaps, that the production had a military advisor, Jonathan Shaw, who provides an interesting perspective on the operational setting (the functionality of military life) in the production’s programme. As Shaw explains, betrayal ‘is the most heinous of military sins’ but it is also ‘the last to be suspected’. That this is true of Iago’s plotting and Othello’s initial resistance to believe Desdemona’s ‘infidelity’, through to the final exposure of Iago’s machinations and the reactions of his comrades is what draws the audience in, and both Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester play their parts beautifully. Kinnear revels in those alone moments where he half converses with himself, and makes the audience complicit in his plan; Lester makes us believe that Othello is caught between two people he wants to trust, but who now are placed on opposite sides.
Applying the same code of conduct to his marriage, as he does to the governance of his military unit, ultimately, for Othello, the bonds of brotherhood seem stronger than those of matrimony. Desdemona (and his marriage) has no place in the military campaign, and her attempts to intervene in Othello’s military decisions (the demotion of Cassio for his drunken brawling) allow the suspicion of her rumoured infidelity to take hold. Her lack of ‘trust’ in Othello’s decision allows Iago to destabilise the trust Othello has in his wife.
I think the thing that made this production so compelling for me was the understated performances and the naturalness of character. It is all too easy to caricature Shakespeare’s characters, particularly his villains; to overplay Iago’s nastiness or Othello’s grand presence. But under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, this play is believably everyday (or as everyday as you can get in a military barracks). It isn’t the grandiose tale of a hero with a single fatal flaw that we are destined to learn about in school; it seems a more commonplace tale of the consequences of trust. And it’s all the more chilling for it.
Lester’s Othello is self-conscious, considered in speech, aware of his having risen from the ranks, and his position as general is commanded quietly; publicly, this is not a man who shouts the loudest, but a man who through his previous actions has earned the status he now occupies. Privately, in those moments where Iago goads him, Othello is quick tempered, turning over tables and smashing his hand through walls.
Similarly, Kinnear’s Iago is not the creeping, Machiavellian type; his is at once a funny, disturbed, and entirely menacing portrayal of a man who seeks to maliciously destroy those around him through simple sleights of hand. His lack of conception that his opportunism will lead to his own downfall is entirely believable as he drip-feeds bits of unsubstantiated rumours to Othello. At the same time, Kinnear makes us laugh along with Iago; there were moments, where I’ve never heard audiences laugh before, that took on a new resonance. In a particularly telling moment, where he has tormented Othello so much that he has fallen into a seizure, Kinnear’s Iago banally takes a sip of the water that he had intended for his general. It perfectly captures Iago’s lack of humanity, and contrasts with his own sense of the injustice done to him in the world. There were also times when those bits of information that Iago drops into conversation don’t ring true to Othello, and the audience can only hope that his initial scepticism would hold out. Right through to the pathetic end, the interlocked nature of these two characters was overwhelming. We see them in a shared office, in the bathrooms, and rarely alone outside. Every key interaction had to take place in the private and enclosed spaces of two close army buddies. When Desdemona then interrupts the ‘maleness’ of these spaces, she seems out of place, unwelcome almost, and her ‘out of place-ness’ is suggested by Olivia Vinall’s deft portrayal of a young woman who cannot comprehend the situation in which she finds herself. Her young Desdemona has fallen in love with the image of Othello, and is ill equipped to reconcile this with the reality. A bird in a gilded cage, perhaps, and certainly one caught in the wrong cage.
The staging of the play reinforced this enclosure. Set in a military barracks, the production was, always nodding to its conclusion, suffocating. We consistently see the gates being locked, enclosing the characters and the audience, cutting them and us off from the outside world that exists at the back of the stage. The outside world that is meant to be dangerous; and yet, the greatest tragedy that occurs within the safety of the barracks. Caught in this military base, you could feel the stifling desert air (possibly helped by the fact that we are enjoying one of the hottest summers in recent years), and the set design succeeded in making the stage of the Olivier theatre feel particularly small. And of course, as the play progresses, both characters and audience move to more and more intimate enclosures, from the drill yard to the General’s office, to the bedroom. Again, the commonplace setting, the flat-packed furniture bedroom, sparse and lit by strip lighting brings the audience right back to the everyday, the operational.
The moment where Othello turns from enraged and entirely tormented by imagining his wife’s infidelity, to a broken sobbing pathetic man who can’t deal with the situation he finds himself in, is difficult to watch. Lester’s timing is spot on: his comprehension of what he has done in murdering Desdemona, and his attempts to then find a way through his guilt show us the mental anguish of a man so determined to do what is right that he ends up getting it spectacularly wrong. The audience is witness to a tragedy that we hear about all too often: a jealous lover snapping and acting out. Only here, in the guise of sixteenth-century drama, we see the build up, the twisting of words, the manipulation of gestures, and the aftermath where everyone is destroyed by two men who lose control: Othello in his violence, and Iago in his determination to exact revenge.
The production has been playing on my mind for the past week, and I think it will do for a long time yet. Its resonance with the recent news, and its explorations of what it means to trust and to doubt creep into my mind at the oddest of moments. I sincerely hope I don’t have to wait another ten years to see such a performance.
A great trailer for the production can be seen at National Theatre Live. The play will be broadcast as part of NT Live on Thursday 26 September.
The production at the NT runs until 5 October.