All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Tragedy” is one of the most misused words in the English language. Newscasters and others often say ‘tragedy’ when they mean ‘calamity’ or ‘catastrophe.’ A dire event, even one that costs thousands of lives, is not enough to qualify. To be a tragedy, an individual must have a trait or flaw that leads, almost without remedy, to his or her downfall.
Many plays are classified as tragedies (by genre, as opposed to sardonic waggishness), yet when they are acted, productions don’t always convey the pity and terror the audience is supposed to experience as it watches a character spiral, blindly or willingly, towards self-destruction.
Of the hundreds of productions I’ve seen of tragedies, particularly Shakespearean tragedies, one that stands out for its overall quality and its inexorable ability to move me and to stimulate a strong sense of pity and terror in me is the National Theatre of Great Britain’s 2013 staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Vibrant and realistic, it shows you in great depth the struggle Othello, the noble Moor whose gifts are so great he is placed in charge of Venetian troops in spite of rampant prejudice against his African origins, endures as he debates with himself about the evidence, circumstantial and cannily planted, that leads him to believe his beloved wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful to him. Screenings of this sterling production, easily the best of 11 shows I saw in London this spring, begin in American theaters on September 26 and deserve to seen by all, especially those who crave Shakespearean staging at its finest.
Othello, in Nicholas Hytner’s illuminating production, is a man of boundless passion and almost ostentatious competence whether he is leading troops, acting as a diplomat, or wooing and loving Desdemona. Both his talents and his sincerity are unquestionable. Whether you are the statesman who engages him or the soldier who follows him, he is the leader you want, a superior man among men.
Adrian Lester, in the title role, lets us see all of Othello’s virtues and strength. He also shows us Othello’s penchant for order and excellence in everything he does. Lester’s art is in displaying for us how human Othello is, even with his high standards, and how ardent he can be about all things. He is a man incapable of doing anything by half measures. Lester’s Othello is consumed with love and confusion before he is even more notably consumed by jealousy and a desire for retribution. Lester also neatly foreshadows Othello’s temper.
He is matched in Hytner’s production by Rory Kinnear’s smooth, luring performance as Iago, a man who seeks revenge on Othello for choosing another, Cassio, as his second in command, a position Iago covets. Though not the quality of man Othello is, Kinnear’s Iago can carry off swagger when being a proud officer and ensign then carouse playfully while being one with his troops. Iago creates his own downfall, but he is not tragic because he can control what happens to him and is just outsmarted, unfortunately not in time to save the innocent who perish because of his perfidy. Kinnear is witty in portraying a man who is confident while also being one in whom others will confide and from whom they will accept confidences. There is no sense of doom or idea of failure about him. He and Hytner are also shrewd in having Iago be a tad common, one who is assured in his manner when necessary but unable to shake off totally some roughness of the barracks. This, besides some doubts Othello expresses, helps to explain why the more genteel Cassio may be preferred over Iago for advancement.
Like Othello, Hytner accepts no half measures in this production. Every scene is given weight and importance that add to the show’s intensity and its impression that you are seeing actual people living their lives rather than actors in a classical recitation.
For once, you see mutual affection, the bloom of cherished courtship and new marriage, radiating from Othello and Desdemona, played with intelligence and brightness by Olivia Vinall, who captures the character’s charm and ease with people as much as the fear she so poignantly expresses when Othello’s fabled jealousy takes its fatal turn.
Lester’s Othello and Vinall’s Desdemona are visibly in love and desirous of each other’s company. When their honeymoon is interrupted by Othello being dispatched to quell an uprising, Desdemona travels with her husband, albeit on a separate vessel. Their reunion at a Cypriot port is wonderful to behold. Hytner isn’t content with Shakespeare telling us about Othello and Desdemona’s adoration for one another, as more and more productions are. He sets about giving us irrefutable proof of their love. In his staging, Desdemona is more than entranced by Othello’s heroic tales of battles, wars, and places far from Venice. She is enamored of and blissfully in love with the entire man and honored to be his wife.
Hytner doesn’t stint in the early passages when Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, castigates his daughter’s marriage and objects to Othello’s race. Unlike most productions, he does not race through the opening scenes of Iago rousing Brabantio’s home with news of Desdemona’s elopement, or the Venetian council scene that follows. He lets the information in those scenes add texture to his entire production and does so pointedly and efficiently, so they enhance the play’s enjoyment rather than seeming dull bits of exposition.
Hytner chooses to set “Othello” in a contemporary military barracks, with soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms for desert combat and behaving with the easy informality of men today, as opposed to standing and delivering lines stiffly, and without personality, as happens in many classical productions.
Barracks life provides a framework for Hytner’s production. He does not move “Othello” out of its usual period as a gimmick. He does it to create the full effect of the large world in which Othello treads and the responsibility he, as a commander, has in it. Casual scenes in the barracks underscore the deeper, more violent, or emotional passages that occur. The actors playing Othello’s are totally natural, as if they were lounging on the South Bank outside the National instead of performing in a play. Towards the end of intermission, Hytner slyly has Othello’s troops relaxing on a lawn outside their pre-fab hut. As they lob frisbees or just rest as if they’re taking in some sun, they seem like a bunch of amiable guys at leisure. This peacefulness makes any disturbance or eruption all the more dramatic, e.g. when Cassio, excellently played by Jonathan Bailey, is involved in an escalating scuffle that excites Othello’s ire.
By carefully creating a whole, busy world in which Othello’s growing worry about Desdemona’s infidelity is one part, Hytner establishes a core of authenticity to his setting and can seize the chance to narrow the scope and focus on Othello’s heartaches, doubts, ranting, and remorse as he moves ever more determinably to the course Shakespeare sets for him, the action most, if not all, in the audience is aware must take place.
The same isolation Hytner provides for Othello’s turmoil is also used to highlight what Desdemona and her handmaid, Emilia, Iago’s wife, are thinking and doing. Hytner breaks his mise en scene down to show how individuals are behaving amid the doings of the larger landscape and heightens audience emotions with the contrast.
This is the way genuine tragedy unfolds. We see everyone’s actions, everyone’s progression so clearly, we begin to care deeply about Othello and worry, against hope, that he will learn the truth and stop his seeming path to revenge and murder. We have the same feelings for Desdemona and Emilia. For this we can thank the prodigious talents of Olivia Vinall and Lyndsey Marshal.
Vinall is the most complete Desdemona I’ve seen. The dimension she gives her character and the affection it engenders adds to the pain of knowing her character’s fate. Vinall’s Desdemona is self-possessed and romantic. She truly loves her Moor and is happy to be his bride. She has the quickness and presence of mind of many a Shakespearean, or even a Jane Austen, heroine. She can trade quips with soldiers, speak love to her husband, and share her concerns with Emilia. Shakespeare has built all of this into Desdemona’s role, but its surprising how rarely her entire being is seen as vividly as Vinall presents it. Usually, she is an afterthought while Othello and Iago get all of the attention.
Hytner is too meticulous to let that happen. He gives us “Othello” in all of its splendor and elevates the play to a level that puts it on a par with “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Macbeth.”
His actors do him a great service in achieving that.
Lester and Vinall are so complete and moving in their performances, their demises can only be tragic. Pity and terror, inherent in Shakespeare’s script, inhabit the National stage palpably. You are gripped by Lester’s variety, in the high and low tides even of his rages, and you come to admire Othello as his soldiers, the Venetian council, and Desdemona do. Lester, in the most dramatic and human way, makes it unbearable to witness Othello’s downfall. As I said, tragedy as its most effective. And sad.
Lyndsey Marshal is an unparalleled Emilia and the winner of my personal Best Supporting Actress award for the 2012-2013 season, as “Othello” is my choice for Best Production. Marshal, like Kinnear, does not give Emilia the polish of a noble. She is a plain-speaking woman who is all too aware of her husband’s diabolical side and who can confront him and Othello while also being an ear and a voice for Desdemona. Like Lester, Vinall, and Kinnear, Marshal gives a faceted portrayal of a woman who can be a dear and empathetic friend to Desdemona while telling Othello and Iago in no uncertain terms what she sees and what she thinks about it. Marshal may be the first Emilia I’ve seen who subtly but noticeably reacts when she realizes that she has been duped by Iago to participate in his deception.
Like Adrian Lester, Rory Kinnear is one of the most reliable and versatile stars of the London stage. The two are in the league of Olivier and Richardson, or McKellen and Gambon, in their generation. His Iago is remarkable. Even though the character tells you his purpose to destroy Othello, Kinnear is so sincere and earnest in “warning” Othello about treachery in his bedroom, you can see immediately why Lester, as Othello, considers his words and is ready to believe him. Kinnear constantly makes Iago rational and convincing. He is the ultimate engineer, designing evil and seeing through for sport but remaining nonchalant and quietly deliberate while unleashing his nefarious plots.
Just as Hytner gives full shrift to the early scenes, he gives breadth, and breath, to the subplot Iago sets afoot involving Cassio and Roderigo, a Venetian who considers himself spurned and wronged when Othello weds Desdemona.
Tom Robertson is revelatory as Roderigo. He portrays all of the character’s pretensions and aspirations while demonstrating why he is not of the caliber of Cassio, Othello, or even Iago. Robertson’s Roderigo is dim and hot-tempered, easily persuaded to do mischief. He is handsome and of good birth, but he is a lout who thinks he is entitled to Desdemona in a way Othello can never be. Robertson plays Roderigo’s pomp and weakness flawlessly. He also ranked highly in my end-of season awards, placing third in the Best Supporting Actor category. (Lester and Kinnear were second and third in the Best Actor rankings, surpassed only by Billy Porter’s exuberant performance in “Kinky Boots.”)
Jonathan Bailey conveys the nobility, sweetness, and misplaced trust of Cassio, another who becomes Iago’s pawn. Nick Sampson is impressive as Lodovico, a Venetian counselor who is also Desdemona’s uncle. Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi hits the right mark of sexuality and umbrage as Bianca, a strumpet who has an affair with Cassio.
Hytner, Lester, Kinnear, Vinall, Marshal, and all involved in this production, including Vicki Mortimer with her realistic sets and costumes, deserve congratulations for a monumental achievement. The quality of this “Othello” cannot be overstated. Thank goodness for the opportunity to see it again.
In the Philadelphia area, “Othello” screens at The County Theater in Doylestown, Pa. on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Ambler Theater in Ambler, Pa. on Sunday, Oct. 6, and at the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, Pa. and Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Bryn Mawr, Pa. on Sunday, Oct. 13.