National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)
Clint Dyer’s production of Othello begins the moment you enter the auditorium, when Chloe Lamford’s setting of a stepped arena is covered by projected rows of posters of previous productions and a rapid succession of dates as a timeline since it was written, reminding us of the play’s history and, to prepare for a fresh take, a a cleaner mops the arena floor. Then there is a prologue.
The tiers fill with black-garbed figures to watch Giles Terera’s Othello perform martial arts manoeuvres with a long spear. They acclaim his prowess, but when the stage rises to lift him a foot or two higher, such symbolic advancement isn’t acceptable and they turn into a lynch mob. Like twentieth-century entertainers and boxers who could become stars but not expect equality, this black General is expected to know his place.
So much of this play is set at night, and this becomes a world of darkness lit by flaming torches from the time Paul Hilton as Othello’s ensign Iago enters with the duped Roderigo (Jack Bardoe) to tell Desdemona’s father that she is with the Moor and set his plot in motion, a plot which he shares with us and with those surrounding figures, a chorus which the programme calls the “System”.
This is a world in which we are reminded that Othello’s ethnicity puts him at risk. His enemies wield a noose in the background and at one point, though for no clear reason, police line the steps with riot shields. Giles Terera presents a very physical Othello. His delivery has clarity and sense, and his physical presence shows his current authority, but his back is marked by the scars of slavery and he lives in a world he cannot trust. His downfall is in believing “honest” Iago. It is this Othello’s own insecurities that are the breeding ground for the jealousy that Iago stirs up.
Terera doesn’t indulge in the poetry. He makes Othello’s big speeches seem part of regular discourse, but Ivo is different; his soliloquies are literals highlighted with a follow-spot and the System responds to them almost as thoughts in his brain.
Hilton’s Iago isn’t a plebeian NCO as sometimes played; he talks posh. He feels he should have got the post fellow officer Captain Cassio (Rory Fleck Byrne) holds, he feels thwarted and jealous, and takes his frustrations out on his wife Emilia—you can see her bruises. His moustache makes him look a little like Oswald Mosley and Michael Vale’s costumes for the System are a reminder of Fascist blackshirts.
Emilia (Tanya Franks) puts up with her treatment but Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona is a new sort of woman. She accepts society’s ideas of duty but has a strong sense of her own independence, though it is Emilia who puts the case for equality when, seeming to be thinking it out for the first time, she compares the difference in what is expected of husbands and wives.
Darkness and torches continue throughout, though overhead, a rectangle of light sometimes indicates an interior or possibly daylight, and the “flaming minister” by which Othello views the sleeping Desdemona before he kills her is no mere candle and her end is violent.
The dramatic chiaroscuro of the staging is underscored by the thunder and throbbing drums in the sound score which sometimes risks being obtrusive, but this stark presentation does shift the balance to show an Othello not just led into a kind of madness by Iago but a man embattled by all those around him in a systematically racist society.
Though the plot often hinges on sexual jealousy, there is little display here of the erotic attraction that it sometimes hints at, though there are fleeting glimpses of a genuine affection between Othello and Desdemona. The emphasis is on Iago’s scheming and its effect on Othello. Clint Dyer delivers a powerful production with performances both dignified and passionate.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton