From the opening moments of Nicholas Hytner’s captivating modern rendition of Othello, the audience are thrust into a brutally hostile military world, an environment from which they cannot escape for the duration of the performance. Hytner has himself spoken of the importance of Othello’s military context in his interpretation, and he successfully creates an intimidating Cypriot army base camp in which the external threat of the Turks is replaced by the internal threat of jealousy, deception and betrayal. Vicki Mortimer’s set design is composed of moveable concrete rooms with bland white walls, creating a dull and confined space which becomes crucial in establishing the claustrophobic, masculine-fuelled tension that is prevalent throughout. The characters are left with little else to do but drink and gossip, playing perfectly into the cunning hands of Rory Kinnear’s Iago. Hytner choreographs an ensemble of brash and restless soldiers who circle round each other and drunkenly cackle like hyenas as the camp descends into disarray. Mortimer’s superbly crafted military location perfectly complements the chaos that unfolds on stage as each character turns against their fellow soldier in a ruthless and exhilarating rendition of Shakespeare’s much-celebrated tragedy.
It is in this aggressive environment that Adrian Lester’s Othello tragically deteriorates. The perfect embodiment of a calm, eloquent, yet authoritative leader in the well-refined offices of Venice as he is introduced to the audience, Lester’s perfect control over vocal tempo and tone alongside a commanding upright posture establishes the Moor as a charismatic orator who is deeply respected by those around him. Lester’s charming amiability makes his degradation at the hands of Iago all the more devastating. Far from the level-headed leader he previously manifested, Lester combines both physical and verbal outbursts of violence and a hunched yet frantically twitchy posture to embody a hollow shell of a man, broken by the jealousy that is wrought on so masterfully by his own advisor. Despite his savage murder of his wife, Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona, the eloquent despair with which Lester delivers the protagonist’s final lines gives the audience no choice but to sympathise with the tragic hero as ‘one who loved not wisely but too well’.
Lester is wonderfully complemented by Kinnear’s portrayal of Othello’s slippery and vengeful right-hand man Iago. Iago himself has a masterful control over language, and Kinnear revels in confiding his motivations and schemes with members of the audience, spitting his words in a staccato frenzy of hatred and envy. His rough cockney accent is the complete antithesis of the polished and cultivated mannerisms of Jonathan Bailey’s Michael Cassio, the subject of his professional jealousy, whilst his manipulation of silence and pause in his deceit of Othello adds further uncertainty to the hazy military setting in which it is impossible to see things clearly. From the offices of the senate in Venice to Desdemona’s death bed, Kinnear lurks in the shadowy corners of every room, observing and calculating as the chaos unfolds around him. The extraordinary nuance that Kinnear brings to the role is encapsulated by his refusal to speak in the final moments of the play as he stands, motionless and stupefied, observing the cluster of corpses strewn across his general’s bed as a result of his vengeful scheme.
In a world that is dominated by military masculine aggression, Olivia Vinall’s portrayal of Desdemona radiates authority. She is visually isolated on stage, surrounded by camouflage-clad soldiers, whilst adding an eccentric charm to the mundane and foreboding atmosphere in the army camp. Even when Othello is at his most destructive, she remains truthful and dignified, refusing to submit to her husband’s tirade and obstinately defending herself until she is brutally smothered to death. Lyndsey Marshall embodies a gritty and defiant Emilia, physically shuddering with rage at the injustice that befalls her mistress before passionately denouncing her husband’s revenge plot.
Despite the obvious shortcomings associated with the play’s online format, Hytner’s Othello provides a ferocious and immersive theatrical experience. His take on Shakespeare’s tragedy goes against the theory that it is dominated by racial prejudice, with these stereotypes acting as a weapon in Iago’s stacked arsenal rather than a direct cause of the eponymous hero’s downfall. Harrowing, electrifying and full of captivating performances, the National Theatre has again succeeded in reinventing a canonical text to perfectly suit a modern audience. When it comes to tension, passion and exhilaration, there is no better way to spend three hours.