In my post about a couple of the offerings of the RSC’s summer season, I skirted around the hardly original contention that, in production, a play by Shakespeare needs to become more than a beautifully-read text if it is to enjoy success. David Farr’s Hamlet enjoys beautiful verse-speaking and, of course, some of the most elegant lines in all of Shakespeare; in his Titus Andronicus, Michael Fentiman has some charismatic actors occassionally stumbling through prosaic couplets, but it is Titus which emerges as the more compelling piece.
Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre, is known for treating the Bard with something less than reverence. Where even Fentiman keeps the most curious of original textual oddities in his production, Hytner is not beyond editing or even – gasp – rewriting Shakespeare in order to craft for the audience a better experience. In his programme notes for the NT’s current production of Othello, at the Olivier until October, he posits Shakespeare as a kind of problem – a rewarding writer who nevertheless offers often impossible puzzles for the contemporary director. “The solution,” he writes, “is the actor.”
Othello makes a good argument for this vision of wrestling Shakespeare into submission. As Iago, Rory Kinnear seeks not to make sense of his character, but to dramatise his confusion: the only his Iago knows for sure is that he does indeed hate Adrian Lester’s Moor. He hates with such a passion, however, that it is beyond his ken. Kinnear plays Iago as a frustrated squaddie, a working-class bloke who enjoys a beer and a fag (we first see him emerge from a shabby nightclub with Tom Robertson’s hilariously hapless Roderigo); his famously honeyed words are trotted out, at first distractingly, in a gruff estuary burr. He is not the villainous puppet-master, in control of events and planning each move far ahead; he is the streetwise opportunist, not quite able to express his own emotions but aware enough of other’s frailties to make use of them.
This characterisation gives the play a renewed immediacy: as Iago panics and remodifies his stratagems (in the final moments of the play he seems genuinely shocked by what he has wrought), so too the other characters appear to have – briefly, haltingly – chances for redemption. Before Lester’s Othello descends by the end of the evening into vain self-pity, he is a wry, likeable figure – Lester’s early soliloquies are easily the most beautifully delivered in the entire production, and his reputation as one of our finest Shakespearean actors can only be bolstered by a role into which he almost entirely disappears. Likewise, Desdemona (an engaging Olivia Vinall) is an innocent abroad, a woman whose largest fault is a lack of understanding.
Hytner writes all this large with a focus on the play’s military aspects. Much of the action of Othello takes place in a Cyprus newly occupied by the invading Venetian force, which has arrived expecting a war and yet whose soldiers find themselves instead kicking their heels and making nice with the locals when a convenient breeze, 1588-like, does for the Turkish fleet. Hytner’s set design therefore takes the form of a Camp Bastion construction, all bleached concrete and featureless, functional spaces in which the assembled soldiers, cooped-up and without a real job to do, kick footballs around listlessly or get roaringly drunk in order to fill the time.
Into this vacuum step two destabilising influences: the primacy of the bond between soldiers over the one they share with those they serve and protect; and, of course, gossip and jealousy. The General persona Othello builds up when in the company of the Duke of Venice during the first act slowly breaks down in the field until he is once again throwing tables around and growling orders for violence, like the frontline fighter he once, so successfully, was; Desdemona, meanwhile is allowed, unusually, to join the occupying force in Cyprus – and, dressed in her little trainers and brightly-coloured leggings, finds herself entirely at sea, and absolutely disruptive.
Iago, a chip on his shoulder the size of the silver-spooned Cassio’s promotion above him, juggles these elements to devastating, but not always predictable, effect. Although he is manifestly unaware of what really drives him – first his career prospects, then his hatred for Othello, then the rumours that his general and his wife have slept together, then his love for Desdemona – he is a keener student, in a demotic fashion, of what drives others. This is because he, unlike the civilian Desdemona or the officer Othello, understands and is embedded in the brilliantly-depicted military life of the unit. So, too, incidentally, is his wife and Desdemona’s keeper, Emilia (a very effective Lyndsey Marshall) – who is here cast also as a solider, although less effectively given a prim RP accent which makes Iago’s class identity a little less clearer, and without much in the way of positive counter-weight. The insular, totalising culture which all these characters share, however, gives the play a new explanation for Othello’s devolution – not, in fact, the tearing of a superficial layer from a barely civilised, gullible savage, but a reversion, through misuse of the soldier’s bond of blood, to the killer he was trained by the ostensibly shocked state to be.
All of this gives Hytner’s production a coherence in intimacy and domesticity – each individual put on the rack, Desdemona’s bed an instantly recognisable flat-pack thing, placed in a prefabricated bedroom of beige walls and carpets. With a few tweaks to the text, and not a lot of reverence, the production becomes conversely more serious, and in its final scenes all the more horrifying. At the end, Lester and Kinnear take a special little bow together apart from the main cast – a practice about which I agree with Titus Andronicus‘s formidable Katy Stephens – but they have so impressed in the context of a quite expertly realised ensemble effort (the central scene between them as Iago opens up Othello’s jealousy, however, is admittedly the most compelling collaboration between two actors you’re likely to see all year). Though its Iago is without the self-knowledge to analyse or stop himself, this Othello will, I think, define others for some time to come.