Othello

By Carol Rocamora

They should have called it “Iago”! 

As Othello’s deceitful ensign, Rory Kinnear’s performance is so mesmerizing that it hijacks Nicholas Hytner’s entire 2013 production.  It makes you wonder why Shakespeare didn’t name his great tragedy after Iago in the first place.

That’s not to say that Adrian Lester is not commanding as the Moor – on the contrary.  But from the very first scene of Hytner’s Othello, when Iago reveals his dark intentions of revenge, the charismatic Kinnear holds us in a stranglehold of suspense, even though we know the outcome.  In the line of Shakespearean villains – Richard III, Edmund (King Lear), Don John (Much Ado About Nothing), and others – Kinnear catapults Iago to the top.

Yes, Othello’s is the glamorous role, but Iago moves the plot. Angry that Othello, a great Venetian general, has not given him a coveted promotion, the embittered Iago tells the audience that he will take revenge on his superior.  These soliloquys wherein he takes us into his confidence become the engine that drives this bloody revenge story, and we await each installment with a lurid mixture of dread and excitement.  A brilliant liar, skilled strategist and master manipulator, Iago ensnares Cassio – a young lieutenant – into his intricate plot, by falsely arousing Othello’s jealousy that Cassio might be having an affair with Othello’s lovely young bride, Desdemona.  Feeling vulnerable because of the color of his skin (he is Black, Desdemona is white) and the hastiness of their marriage without her family’s consent, Othello proves to be easy prey to the so-called “green-eyed monster” (jealousy) and is provoked into a murderous rage (no spoiler – you know the ending). 

Kinnear plays Iago with a burning, white-hot intensity, as if his entire being is being consumed in the flames of hatred and evil intent.  It’s a complex psychological performance, revealing what devastation that revenge can bring – not only on one’s target, but also upon oneself.  From that very first soliloquy – so intense with hatred that you want to look away – to the very last moment of the play, which Hytner gives to Iago as he beholds the pile of dead bodies for whom he’s responsible (Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia, Iago’s wife), you see him suffering the consequences.  As Othello says before he commits suicide (for his unjust murder of Desdemona), he condemns Iago not to death but to a continued, agonizing life of self-torture.

In contrast, Adrian Lester’s performance as Othello is unexpectedly touching.  An appealing actor who exudes an effortless empathy, he plays a confident – though not imperious leader – who takes his job seriously.  He appears to fight desperately against succumbing to the “green-eyed monster” to which he ultimately falls a helpless victim. His remorse over the terrible murder he’s committed is piercingly felt, and he articulates his own epitaph with aching sincerity: “Speak of me as I am … as one that loved, not wisely, but too well…”)

Hytner has set the scenes in Venice and Cyprus on Vicky Mortimer’s contemporary set, featuring movable modular units that serve as conference rooms, bedrooms, etc.  The contemporary mood extends to Hytner’s gender-blind casting, featuring women playing some of the soldiers.  As Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s handmaiden, Lyndsey Marshal offers a particularly enlightened portrayal of an independent-minded woman.  Her scene with Desdemona, played by the lovely Olivia Vinall, has a special, feminist ring, as these two wives of powerful men share their marital problems. 

Hytner’s production of Othello will remain memorable as a tragedy of revenge, as much as of jealousy.  Meanwhile, in recent years here, there have been productions of this Shakespearean tragedy with other interpretations.  I admired the balanced performances of David Oyelowo (Othello) and Daniel Craig (Iago) in Sam Gold’s Othello at the New York Theater Workshop (2016), focusing on the fierce competition between these two characters, inextricably bound together till the end.  In 2019, taking a radically theatrical step, actor Keith Hamilton Cobb created a compelling one-man show entitled American Moor, featuring a Black actor’s audition for the role of Othello.  For Cobb, who played the role himself, Othello is an opportunity for a Black actor to define Black identity himself (“Speak of me as I am”), rather than have a white director define it for him.

Hytner’s production, now streaming on National Theatre At Home, is a lasting reminder of the immortality of Shakespeare, whose great plays continue to invite new interpretations to suit the times.

Othello, by William Shakespeare, directed by Nicholas Hytner (Royal National Theatre, 2013), now streaming on National Theatre At Home (ntathome.com)

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