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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Olivia Vinall, Adrian Lester and Lyndsey Marshall/ Ph: Johan Persson

Nicholas Hytner’s searingly contemporary Othello puts modern military culture under the microscope, asking uncomfortable questions about what the process of war does to the male psyche. It’s a brilliant device that makes this far more than a work about racism, since it looks at how men pumped up on aggression and partisanship struggle to maintain the very values of civilisation they are deployed to promote.
Nowhere is this more interestingly presented than in Rory Kinnear’s estuary-accented Iago, who chillingly makes clear the link between military-loving tabloid papers, sexual fantasies and hate crime. When he informs Desdemona’s father Brabantio that Desdemona and Othello are "making the beast with two backs," he sounds as if he’s quoting headlines from The Sun. Passed over for job promotion by an immigrant who has achieved more than he could dream of, Iago comes across as precisely the kind of disenfranchised, white working-class individual targeted by the British National Party. When he describes fellow-soldier Cassio making love to him in his sleep, thinking he’s Desdemona, it seems laughable until you remember that – like the far-fetched tabloid stories it resembles – it’s about systematically stripping individuals of dignity until eventually they’re reduced to animals.
Vicki Mortimer’s set design – which for most of the action immerses us in a spartan, brightly lit military complex on Cyprus – instils the sense of an existence pared back to basics. The only decorations here are of a few girly posters, and though the cast includes female soldiers – not least Iago’s wife, Emilia – it is noticeable how subsumed they are in the atmosphere of testosterone. Against such a backdrop, the question is not just about how Iago manipulates Desdemona’s image, but of how susceptible all the other men in the play are to his games because of their prejudices. "Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father and may thee," warns Brabantio at the opening – a sentiment that should seem archaic, yet makes terrifying sense in this sexist, possessive environment.
Adrian Lester was last seen at the National as its first black Henry V, and as Othello he once more proves himself as an actor with extraordinary charisma and authority. This is a production that has rightly been feted for its superb clarity, yet even so Lester stands out for the melodious delivery of his verse. The dynamic between him and Kinnear’s Iago is horribly thrilling. We watch as Iago drip-feeds the poison until Othello is goaded into irrational violence. In a scene made all the more powerful by what it prefigures, Othello partially throttles Iago against the wall in his office. From here, it is clear, no redemption is possible.
Olivia Vinall’s willowy jeans-clad Desdemona gives a luminously sane performance, even as the tornado of testosterone and jealousy whirls her life off course. And as Iago’s wife Emilia, Lyndsey Marshal elevates what’s normally a minor role into a moving expression of outrage as she berates her reptilian husband. Amid such strong performances, Hytner’s coup is to show to what extent both Iago and Othello’s behaviour is symptomatic of a malaise that has resonances everywhere from Abu Ghraib to the raping of women by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. If you train men to hate and destroy, even if it’s supposedly for the greater good, you may well be left with monstrous impulses that no civilisation is able to control.
Othello will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 26 September.


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