National Theatre Live: Othello (2013)

  |  Drama

National Theatre Live: Othello (2013) Poster

The Moorish general Othello is manipulated into thinking that his new wife Desdemona has been carrying on an affair with his lieutenant Michael Cassio when in reality it is all part of the scheme of a bitter ensign named Iago.


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15 July 2015 | proteus6847
| Your Shakespeare is Too Small
The National Theatre Live production of Othello (2013) features Adrian Lester as the Moor, Rory Kinnear as Iago and Olivia Vinall as Desdemona. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it is set primarily in a 21st-century army barracks. The production has been shown in cinemas around the world, and is currently available on demand to British schools. I recently watched it on YouTube; it has since been removed. I didn't like it, and the following are my scattered attempts to explain why.

1. Othello's occupation was not only gone; it never existed. Adrian Lester's Moor had obviously never been on a battlefield, never killed an enemy of the state, never led a patrol squad let alone an army, never even received basic training. His sweet, doe-eyed face was that of a child, and his all-pervading gentleness wiped out any trace of martial authority. His sole attempt at a military stance consisted of folding his arms behind his back. "Farewell the plumed troops" seemed bizarre, not only because of the modern setting, but because the childlike Lester visibly didn't know what he was talking about. So intent was this production upon making Othello a victim that it neglected to make him a warrior and commander as well.

2. The Othello music was also gone: some of it cut, some it transposed into modern English, the rest of it filtered away by Lester's naturalistic delivery. Hesitant and halting, Lester groped for high astounding terms. When he somehow managed to find them, he muttered them apologetically, excusing them with audible air-quotes. Perhaps one shouldn't blame him. In this world of fluorescent lighting, camouflage fatigues, green metal lockers and toilet stalls, Shakespeare's language couldn't help but seem pretentious, indeed ridiculous: something for the speaker to be ashamed of.

3. Lester can cry at will, his wounded eyes leaking lie a sodden diaper. His suffering was believable, but it was his suffering or generic suffering, not Othello's. Nothing else inspired belief, including his alleged love for Desdemona. Othello sees his wife as "there where I have garnered up my heart,/Where either I must live or bear no life,/The fountain from the which my current runs/Or else dries up." Yet there was no convincing passion or shared sense of wonder between Lester and Olivia Vinall, who seemed more like old friends or next-door neighbors. Again, perhaps one shouldn't blame Lester. Vinall's Desdemona was merely an energetic tomboy, bumptious and wiry--cute, no doubt, but hardly the exemplar of physical and spiritual beauty that Shakespeare imagined. The hymns to her "divinity" intoned by Jonathan Bailey's plodding Cassio were doubly misplaced: this Cassio could never have framed such words; this Desdemona didn't deserve them.

4. Shakespeare's Iago says "I am not what I am." Rory Kinnear's Iago is what he is from first to last, and what he is is paltry: an East End pub-crawler, a dreary Cockney guttersnipe, incapable of devising multiple intrigues or taking down someone greater than himself. In the days of Edwin Booth, Iago was intelligent, dark, brooding, almost tragic in his villainy: a man with the stature to annihilate Othello. But nowadays a racist can only be a redneck, so Iago must be presented as coarse and stupid, full of low cunning but otherwise brainless. This is nonsense, since the man who improvises cynically clever couplets for Desdemona, who expounds his proto-Nietzschean philosophy to Roderigo, who destroys the Supreme Commander of the Venetian Army, is clearly not without mind or substance, however malicious. The bluff, uncouth soldier is a mask. The true Iago is a cultural and ethical materialist, systematically breaking down ideals, aspirations and achievements into their "real" constituents of political pull and animal appetite. Othello and Desdemona threaten his world-view. Eradicating them is the only way he can set things right. Iago is intellect corrupted by resentment; I would play him wearing glasses and thumbing a volume of postmodern theory. Of course, almost anything would be preferable to a commonplace rank-and-filer, since demeaning Othello's Nemesis necessarily trivializes Othello.

5. Chekhov once said, "We must not bring Gogol down to the people, but raise the people up to Gogol." Perhaps such high-mindedness is quixotic; perhaps most theater companies cannot afford to educate an audience. But there was a time within living memory when this didn't matter, when English theatergoers were so imbued with Shakespeare that attracting them did not require wholesale degradation. Those days are gone and will not return anytime soon. Until they do, we will have to endure productions like this one, where eloquence is suspect, elevation risible, and greatness itself a loathed relic of the past. They are the kind of productions that Iago would enjoy.

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