The National Theatre’s Othello (shown on film last weekend) was the finest Shakespearean production I have seen in a completely modern interpretation (though I think Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus runs it close). Despite a completely faithful adherence to the script, there was not one jarring note or anachronism.
In a brief interview before curtain-up, the director explained that he wanted the cast to be able to speak as in the present, and indeed the performers made the text their own with never a false step.
The leading men – Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago – were stunning, and were strongly supported by the entire cast. Iago burst on to the first scene already brim full of festering fury and jealousy, and this intensity was sustained throughout as the dreadful course of his revenge unfolded. Not only his stance and facial expression, but even his manner of speech brought to mind the old clichés of ‘coiled spring ‘ and ‘lighted fuse ‘, as he spoke with explosive force, outlining the grounds for his hatred. Othello appeared before the Venetian Senate calm and self-confident with an impressive dignity, clearly a man whose history gave him every reason to feel justifiably proud and to face anyone on equal terms. To watch his gradual destruction was desperately sad.
The two worked superbly together, and the long and difficult pivotal scene (Act 3 iii) in which Iago convinces Othello of his wife’s treachery was enthralling. This was no easy victory: Othello fought all the way not to believe, while Iago played him and reeled him in, and finally delivered the coup de grace.
The women were, as the director said, feisty, and Desdemona did not die without a fierce struggle. Emilia, played as a serving soldier, also exhibited an independent spirit and, when she finally realised Iago’s full guilt, railed against him powerfully.
The most admirable feature of this performance, for me, was the actors’ skilful delivery of the spoken word. Every phrase was thought through and meaningful, every subtlety fully explored and the emotional content modulated masterfully to support and extend the meaning of the words. Sometimes very well-known speeches or phrases can be too familiar to a listener, but here every thought was freshly examined; so, Othello’s famous description of his wooing was lightly handled, not weighed down unnaturally by the amazing imagery. Again, his self-pitying speech of farewell – to the plumed troops, the shrill trump, etc. – was no ‘set piece ‘ but a revelation of Othello’s whole past. Even ‘one that lov’d not wisely, but too well ‘ was re-examined. Altogether, every performer’s delivery allowed a listener to hear the play as if for the first time. They had taken the script and made it, and the characters, their own.