Thursday 1 December 2022

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre / Lyttelton)

Othello must be one of the most-frequently performed Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre, and the latest production by Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer - the first at the venue by a black director - is in part inspired by how long the version with Laurence Olivier in blackface continued to hold pride of place in the archive. That's one of the photos that adorn the back wall of the stage as the audience enters the Lyttelton, among an ever-changing projection display of past production posters that suggests the different approaches to the play taken over the years. As the display ticks past the years since it was written, we get the idea that we've reached a very 2022 reading, which strips the play back to show its racial conflicts as the primary motivator. Here, only Giles Terrera's General Othello isn't white; almost everyone in the rest of the cast doubles as a member of a sinister, black-shirted chorus Dyer has christened the System.

On Chloe Lamford's amphitheatre-like stepped set, they sit and menacingly watch as Othello enters, performing a dance-fight with a stick, then turn into a mob when the fighter dares to elope with Desdemona (Rosy McEwen,) the white daughter of a Venetian grandee.

It quickly sets up the premise of where Othello stands in this society, which on a practical level is dependent on him for his tactical military mind: His blackness is fine when it's part of a fetishised African fighting ability; the second he escapes the specific confines the System has for him and tries to enter the rest of society, it becomes a problem. Othello's central plot is of Ensign Iago, for vague motivations which are explored differently in different productions, deciding to destroy the General by convincing him Desdemona is cheating on him with her childhood friend Cassio (Rory Fleck Byrne,) and driving him mad with jealousy, a plot that works out with bloodier consequences than even he might have expected.

Here Paul Hilton's Iago, his character design consciously modeled as an Oswald Mosley/Adolf Hitler cross (costumes by Michael Vale,) is less a sole instigator, more a figurehead for the System - although he still confides in the audience sometimes, his soliloquies are largely addressed to the chorus around him. In this context you can see why the production focuses on the spurious claim that Othello might have slept with his wife as his primary motivation: If Iago's a far-right politician stirring up a mob, then Othello's marriage to Desdemona plays right into his hands as a narrative of black men "coming here and stealing our women," and the precise identity of the woman is almost incidental.

Because for Dyer's take to work this society has to be as sexist as it is racist - how else could Iago maintain his standing and everyone's trust, when Emilia (Tanya Franks) is openly a battered and cowed wife, her husband perfectly happy for her to be seen in public covered in bruises and bandages? McEwen's Desdemona is an outlier here, with an unusual amount of grit for an underwritten character, the one person who sees through and stands up to Iago from the start, but is powerless to predict or stop the sheer lengths he's willing to go to.

Terera's Othello is an unusually likeable and romantic one; the whip scars on his back imply he's an escaped former slave, so there's a lot of life experience there rather than the blinkered career soldier we tend to see: His military skill is a natural talent he happens to have rather than his life's work, and it's the System rather than himself who define him as a soldier. Here the handkerchief plot seems more important than usual, as Othello is less inclined to blindly trust a fellow soldier, and needs to see the (fabricated) evidence before cracking. But ultimately this production is less about the internal psychology of Othello predisposing him to fall for the plot, more about the external pressures being so great that he's bound to succumb to them - it's not just Iago pulling his strings but the whole System, and even the set has a tendency to squeeze in, trapping him.

If racism is the primary motivation, that doesn't mean there aren't white victims. Within the context of Iago as a fascist leader, as well as the real-life context of populist political victories in the last decade and how they worked out for the people who voted for them, Dyer's production is particularly clear on the collateral damage: When grouped together as a mass, the System appear safe and catered to by Iago, but when they actually split up into individual characters, Desdemonda, Emilia, Roderigo and Cassio are all treated as disposable, all to take down one black man and keep the mob happy.

So Dyer's Othello doesn't lack for interesting ideas and fresh treatments of the subject, but where it falls down sometimes is the execution, particularly in terms of tonal variety. It's one of Shakespeare's bleaker tragedies at the best of times, but here Jack Bardoe as Roderigo, Iago's half-witted accomplice and cash-cow, provides the only rare moments of comedy. And Pete Malkin, Benjamin Grant and Sola Akingbola's music and sound design is an almost-permanent background drone that's a lot to take for three solid hours. One of those productions I find more interesting to unpack than actually to watch, Dyer's take on the play is meticulously thought-out in terms of intent, but stylistically could have done with more variety of sound and vision to really push the story forward.

Othello by William Shakespeare is booking until the 21st of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Myah Jeffers.


  1. I saw this production and although there are some great performances (particularly Paul Hilton) there was a tendency to iron out the cryptic elements wherein lies the play's meaning. The first scene also cut the long speech of Iago's in which Shakespeare - as he often does in the opening scene - creates a kind of overture for the play. Iago is pulling everyone's strings (but that metaphor was cut) and has a motivation for hating Iago having been passed over for promotion in favour of the far less experienced Cassio (also cut). By removing this information the audience was led to believe Iago's hatred resided entirely in race and sex. Iago certainly uses the inherent racism of the whites against Othello but it is not why he personally hates him as Shakespeare is at great pains to point out - or rather would be if it hadn't been cut. Directors change the opening scene of Shakespeare plays at their peril. And in these cuts we also lost arguably the most important line in the entire play, which is Iago's: "I am not what I am." Say what, Iago? Shakespeare sets a puzzle for the audience and his play shows them how to unlock it. Or rather it would if it had not been cut (from a three hour production by the way so it wasn't cut for time). And if that line of thought had been pursued in this production it would have been obvious that "the system" is not what is primarily in the play's sights. The liberal cutting of Shakespeare's plays should be clearly indicated on the posters and advertising so people like me don't spend good money seeing a play which is not strictly Shakespeare's any more. I actually wrote to the National to ask if anything had been added or any significant cuts made before I bought the tickets. I received no reply and encouraged by this bought tickets for what I thought would be Shakespeare's play - this was not as it had been grossly distorted by cutting (there are other cuts I won't go into here but also vital to meaning). Directors of Shakespeare need to understand they will never be better than the author and by changing the text they stop the audience going home to puzzle out Shakespeare's meaning for themselves. The theatre is getting in the way of the play.

    1. I have no problem with cuts, even pretty liberal ones, and not just because without them every Hamlet would last five hours. They're a valid tool in creating a distinct production, just as leaving every word untouched can be. Like anything else though it carries risks. While this production didn't entirely work for me, I did like the focus on the "rumours" of Othello and Emilia. It's kind of a throwaway thing in the middle of all Iago's other motives/excuses, so a production finding a way to actually make it work is interesting to me.