Saturday, October 19, 2013

National Theatre Live - Othello Review

Every year or so we are treated to some National Theatre performances, recorded live and broadcast to cinemas around the world. The 2013/14 program looks particularly stunning and features productions of Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, The Habit of Art, a 50th Anniversary NT celebration, Frankenstein and early next year Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus and an encore of the stage production of War Horse. I am more than a little excited about this. I love live theatre, Shakespeare and last year got to see Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and had my mind completely blown.

On Sunday last week we hit Luna Leederville for the Othello screening featuring Adrian Lester as the Moor and Rory Kinnear as Iago. These sessions are limited so check out and find out where your nearest screening is.

Follow me under the cut for a review of NT Live's encore presentation of Shakespeare's Othello.

Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and Iago is one of my all time favourite characters. Director Nicholas Hytner explained to viewers before the play began that Othello feels like it could have been written yesterday, as its themes remain relevant today. This production reimagined the classic; the army barracks are familiar to us in footage we have seen of Iraq, the common issues associated with the army including the mixture of boredom and alcohol in close quarters are played out to add richness and relevance to the old story.

Iago is unhappy that he has not been promoted and his anger turns on Othello, his General, who has promoted a younger man, Cassio, above him. Iago also believes that his wife Emilia has previously been seduced by Othello, which makes for an interesting tension as in this production Emilia is also in the army. Iago decides to use Othello's recent elopement to a young woman by the name of Desdemona to his advantage, sewing the seeds of doubt in the General's mind as to her faithfulness. He orchestrates a series of interactions so deftly between so many characters that Othello is convinced beyond all doubt that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio and that Iago is his only true friend.

As tensions and jealously rise, Othello kills Desdemona and Iago is undone by his own wife. It would seem that Iago never really cared whether he was caught or not, only that he succeed in completely destroying Othello no matter the cost.

This production features a great performance of Othello by Adrian Lester who manages to slip between the kind natured and strong General and the jealous and enraged madman who murders his wife. It is unsettling, having seen Lester's other work, so see him behaving so violently towards the end of the play and although occasionally his performance is over stated, this seems to simply be the danger of live theatre being recorded and broadcast in movie format. Close camera angles aren't always forgiving to a theatre actor trying to project emotion to the corners of an auditorium. Nonetheless, Lester succeeds of being convincingly malleable to Iago's will.

For me, the real surprise was Rory Kinnear's Iago. I have never seen Iago played the way he was played in this production. Iago often comes across as sinister to the point of caricature if played unconvincingly, and certainly very serious if played well. Kinnear's Iago had a sly sense of humour and all of the hallmarks of a man who actually has himself to blame for his lack of life prospect. He is scruffy and drinks too much; his accent gives the impression of lower education and social standing, though he understands the obsessions of the higher classes and the machinations of this new kind of army so well that he can manipulate them to his ends. He is the smartest man in the room and his seeming lack of ability and education make this all the more interesting.

Director Nicholas Hytner commented on the feisty nature of Shakespeare's women, which I don't wholly agree with but found refreshing in this production. It is a shame that Olivia Vinall came off as over acting because this characterisation of Desdemona was far more interesting that traditional characterisations. The pleasant surprise was Lyndsey Marshal as Iago's wife Emilia. She played her part with a combination of strength, defiance, wit, care and vulnerability that made a seemingly insignificant character a real stand out performance.

Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio lacked any real charm. In some ways he looked the part and in others he really didn't. His performance in the scene where Cassio gets into a drunken brawl and is dismissed from his post was well executed but all of this other scene's lacked the nuance and charisma that Cassio is so famous for having and that make him easy for Iago to target.

Overall, Othello was very entertaining and the differences to setting and context kept me engaged. Kinnear, Lester and Marshal were fantastic and brought some differences to tried and tested characters. The staging was intricate and interesting and served to drive the story and provide a sense of familiarity between the viewer, the plays world and their own. Having had my mind blown by Frankenstein, I doubt this was ever going to live up to it, but it's definitely worth a look if you enjoy Shakespeare, live theatre or Othello.

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