If we were ever likely to forget that Othello is a general who leads an army, this production sets us straight. In Nicholas Hytner's new rendition of Shakespeare's famous tragedy most of the cast wear modern combat battledress of the fawn, desert variety which we have come to see on almost a daily basis over the past few years while our armed services have been engaged in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. And if uniforms were not sufficient to make the point, Vicki Mortimer's set is all concrete blocks, temporary latrines, portable offices, wire fences and sodium vapour lights which illuminate the military base which forms the main context for the piece. So, it is a modern but highly germane setting that provides an authentic environment and one which brings out the nature of the principal characters to great effect.
It all starts, though, outside a dark, rather sinister-looking pub which seems to be located in the UK rather than in Venice where the start of the play is actually set. Drinking beer and puffing on his cigarette, Iago is spending some off-duty time with his comrades in arms, but he has more on his mind than merely having a good time with his pals. Iago says he hates Othello. This seems to be largely because Othello has promoted another officer, Cassio, in preference to Iago. Whatever the true extent or nature of his motives, Iago intends to destroy his commanding officer any way he can, and since Othello has just secretly married Desdemona, Iago starts off his campaign by informing her father of his daughter's marriage to the Moor.
Rory Kinnear's Iago is, in many ways, an ordinary man – the kind of tough, seemingly honest, affable character that you might feel able to depend on in a tight corner. But the outward appearance disguises an underlying, brutally devious persona who would not think twice about stabbing someone in the back. Though he is certainly a schemer, this Iago is not one for meticulous planning – his ruses are largely made-up on the spur of the moment as circumstances dictate. That contrasts nicely with the on-going military activities and the surroundings which of course need to be highly orchestrated. Cruel and ruthless though he may be, Iago also has a cynical sense of humour, and when his tricks start to deliver, he is so jubilant that he jumps for joy almost as if he has just got the bull in a game of darts in the pub with his mates.
Adrian Lester's Othello is a physically powerful man who has quite literally fought his way to the top of the military pile through years of bloody service and not a little suffering along the way. He is no fool, but he is highly vulnerable and not just because he has the top job in the army. First, he suffers from epilepsy which strikes just at his weakest and most vulnerable moment. And, second, he is a man who knows little about anything other than the army, fighting and killing. In particular, he knows almost nothing about women so he is easily conned into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, preferring to trust Iago with whom he has so much in common. Mr Lester produces a hugely compelling and poignant performance and easily convinces us of both his military prowess and authority. My only reservation is that he does sound a little posh for a lowly man without any formal education and no family background.
Messrs Lester and Kinnear really do provide an inspired and mesmerising pairing, but there is plenty of great support especially from Olivia Vinall as a beautifully frail, and innocent Desdemona, and Lyndsey Marshal is extremely impressive as Emilia especially at the end of the play as she becomes both distraught and enraged when her mistress is killed.
With a running time of around 200 minutes, the play might seem long, but time really does roar by in what is actually a fast-moving, brilliantly directed and immensely gripping production.
If you cannot get to the National for 'Othello', you can catch it at one of 250 cinemas in the UK (and others worldwide) on the 26th of September, thanks to 'National Theatre Live'.
"Hytner's brilliantly acted (both leads are stunning), acutely penetrating and deeply disturbing account of the play."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It’s a gripping production of a tragedy that is also an intensely painful psychological thriller, and though the production lasts more than three hours, it never loosens its dramatic hold. This Othello has all the hallmarks of Hytner at his best - it’s witty, agile, lucid and deeply felt...Any production of Othello stands or falls with the actors playing Othello and Iago, and the double-act between Lester’s Moor and Rory Kinnear’s Iago proves exceptional.
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Everything about the production is clear, clever and comprehensible. But, partly because it denies Othello something of his musical grandeur and makes Iago's diseased mind the main event, I'd say it scores a successful victory on points without delivering the final, knockout blow."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Though it lasts well over three hours, Sir Nicholas Hytner’s inventive Othello zips along."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Adrian Lester is a charismatic, dignified Othello... a reminder, as if we needed one, of his great quality as a Shakespearean actor. Rory Kinnear is mesmerising as Iago...The modern setting reveals the play’s paranoid mood and uncomfortable humour but muffles the tragedy a little. Still, this is a distinguished, lucid production. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Stanadard