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A CurtainUp London Review
This play is also about class with Rory Kinnear using Estuary English for Iago and although Othello is presumed to be a “military orphan”, the accent Adrian Lester adopts is neutral. We are told that Othello is most at home when fighting battles against the enemy and least confident about the skills needed in peace keeping. You could be forgiven at the interval for thinking that this play should be called Iago for such is that character's dominance of the stage and the number of soliloquies he has, but none of Shakespeare's tragedies are named after the villain.
In this modern dress production, the play opens with soldiers in a pub to loud music and later we see the soldiers in Cyprus in a heavy drinking session. Vicki Mortimer's clever filmic set is placed in conveyer type containers, each large enough to be a temporary room in the military outpost that is Cyprus. The smoke and surroundings to the set are taken from photographs of Afghanistan. In Venice, the walls of Brabantio's house lift to reveal the boardroom where Othello receives his orders and Brabantio (William Chubb) makes his case about the loss of his daughter to the Duke (Robert Demeger). While Othello defends himself to the duke, Iago stands in the corner, to attention, motionless but poised ready to pounce.
I didn't understand the interpretation of Lindsey Marshall's Emilia. She is dressed in military uniform, very small and scraggy with mannered and awkward salutes. It is hard to see her as the object of anyone's sexual desire. In the first half she seems loyal to Othello and Desdemona and there is no explanation for her change in the second half, when she eagerly obtains the handkerchief, which is the evidence Iago asks for, to frame Cassio and Desdemona. Emilia's role is the least explicable in Hytner's production where she seems to be the evil troll.
Rising star Jonathan Bailey plays the upper class Cassio whose patrician and courteous tones are mimicked by Iago. Olivia Vinall's pretty Desdemona is many years younger than her husband; she is seen in crop pants and appears rather lonely in this military marriage she has embarked on.
Adrian Lester's performance is understated and totally believable. We see his mind start to unravel and it is painful and moving. His handsome and noble Othello is mercilessly scammed by Rory Kinnear's Iago who is referred to by all as “honest” Iago with such frequency that the statement becomes deeply ironic. When Othello collapses in an epileptic fit, it is in the wash rooms and he vomits. We are seeing his physical collapse as well as an emotional one.
As he is called honest by Cassio, Kinnear turns to look directly at the audience as if challenging us to contradict Cassio. Nervous laughter from the audience is their reaction to his chilling effrontery. The racism is wounding as Iago calls Othello the “thick lips” to the buffoon Roderigo (Tom Robertson). Rory Kinnear has become in a few years our most interesting stage actor, capable of a range of very different roles and, with each one, bringing an originality of interpretation and body language I don't remember seeing before.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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