By Ray Bennett
Nicholas Hytner’s production of “Othello” at the National Theatre has drawn rave reviews from UK critics and in the theatre it was easy to be consumed by the power of the play and the great acting, but it has diminished a bit upon reflection.
Adrian Lester is terrific in the title role of a warrior naive in the ways of romance and too trusting in the honesty of his senior officers. Lester can appear a bit glossy on television, due largely to his starring role in the slick confidence trickery of “Hustle”, but on stage he has both power and vulnerability.
Rory Kinnear also gives a fine performance as the devious Iago and there is good supporting work from Jonathan Bailey as Cassio, Vincent Chubb as Desdemona’s racist father and Nick Sampson as a horrified senator.
Concerns about the production start with Hytner’s decision to set events in modern times with the British army in Cyprus. Vicki Mortimer’s box-of-tricks design – with walls that slide away to reveal crummy accommodations in a barracks – is impressive but the modernity undoes the key Shakespearian ploy of a maguffin that sets off the tragedy of jealousy.
Othello is shown as a commanding officer of much repute and there are laptop computers, helicopters and machine guns. He would be familiar with all kinds of intelligence gathering and so it becomes entirely implausible that he would base his murderous anguish on a missing handkerchief.
Body language also appears less than credible. Lester captures vividly Othello’s authority, his surprise and delight that he has won the love of a delightful bride, and the pain that comes from betrayal. Sadly, newcomer Olivia Vinall appears miscast as Desdemona, who should show clearly why a powerful soldier would fall in love with her and why another man should envy and resent him so much. This bride lacks verve and you wonder why Othello would be so enchanted.
Kinnear is thoroughly plausible as the envious and conniving Iago but in my experience weasels tend to comport themselves differently when they are with someone who holds power over them. Here, Iago is the same louche fellow whether he’s with Othello or his fellow soldiers. It makes it hard to see why Othello would be convinced of his honesty.
Also, the many early speeches in which Iago makes clear his hatred of “the Moor” and what he plans to do should fly with sinister foreboding, but here they make everything a bit obvious. Iago says he’s going to ruin Othello, and so he does.
Venue: Olivier Stage, National Theatre; runs to Aug. 18. The production will be broadcast live to 250 UK cinemas and many more around the world on Sept. 26. See here for details.
Cast: Adrian Lester, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Vinall, Jonathan Bailey, Tom Robertson, Lyndsey Marshal. Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Designer: Vicki Mortimer; Lighting designer: Jon Clark, Music: Nick Powell; Sound designer: Gareth Fry. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes including a 20-minute interval.