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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The National Theatre's Othello


I went to see a NT Live screening of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

Over the next few months the STC is screening Othello, Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh, Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Hamlet starring Rory Kinnear and Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston.
If you are anywhere near Washington, D.C. I strongly urge you to see these. The quality of the screen and sound system was very impressive. The tickets are well priced at $16.
For more information and tickets please visit: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/NTlive/
I was excited to see this production of Othello from the National Theatre, directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner, and starring Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello. I had read the reviews about it months ago and it sounded very exciting.

Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester

Sadly, I was disappointed with the production.
I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share some of my thoughts about this production.
I don’t really mind if Shakespeare is transplanted to other times and places. I do prefer the plays to be performed as close to Shakespeare’s period as possible.
Instead of making the play more accessible to me, this modern-day production never stopped distracting me. As hard as I tried to enjoy this production, it repeatedly struck false notes.
For example, when Adrian Lester says “Rude am I in my speech, And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace” it falls very flat, since he has the most eloquent voice of any of the actors on the stage.
In the play, when Desdemona’s father Brabantio learns that Othello  and Desdemona have secretly wed, he is furious and goes to see the Duke of Venice. Brabantio accuses the black Othello of corrupting and stealing his white daughter and wants the Duke to punish Othello.
This makes a lot of sense if the play is set in 16th century Venice. It makes no sense for Brabantio to interrupt a meeting of military leaders in an government office in the 21st century. 
The matter of race, of Othello’s skin color, in this modern setting loses all of its meaning.
In this production, Othello is a general sent to war in Cyprus, but this Cyprus looks an awful lot like Afghanistan or Iraq. 
I have no problem with that. But I do find it strange that his wife would be allowed to join him there -- for their honeymoon!

Olivia Vinall and Adrian Lester

So much of the play is set in this war-zone that it never ceased to distract me that  this young attractive blond woman is running about the base camp in civilian clothes.
As far as the performances are concerned, I was disappointed.

Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester

I like Adrian Lester quite a lot, and I was so excited to see him in this. He is a great actor. But I would have preferred to see him as Othello not in a modern setting.
I can believe that a Moor, who has been fighting wars for most of his life and had been sold into slavery, could be undone by Iago’s schemes and be brought to commit murder. I have a very hard time believing this of a career officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Perhaps my greatest disappointment was the depiction of Iago.
We first meet Rory Kinnear (a great actor, especially as Henry IV in the Hollow Crown version of Richard II) as Iago as he exits a pub, swilling a pint of beer and lighting a cigarette, and not in his uniform. 
He looks like a rather common bloke. But when he talks, he sounds like a rather dim-witted thug, a football hooligan perhaps. 
As the play progresses, it almost seems as if Iago’s plots and schemes to destroy Othello are less a matter of careful planning, than just good luck.
I consider Shakespeare’s character of Iago to be one of the most profound portraits of evil. I think Iago is the smartest person in the play, and to portray him as rather dull and malicious robs the character of his true power.
One of the most important reasons I think we watch this play is because we want to understand why Iago does what he does, to understand the nature of evil. He is fascinating and enigmatic.
I didn’t find anything to fascinate me in this portrayal of Iago. He’s just a really bad guy.

Adrian Lester and Olivia Vinall

I like the actress Olivia Vinall, and I thought she did a good job. But her portrayal as a feisty and spirited young woman is at odds with the character as written.
Desdemona as written in the play is strong and beautiful, but she is obedient to her husband, as it would be expected in the 16th century.
This Desdemona is far from obedient, and seems to come and go as she pleases more like a unruly schoolgirl than the “gentle,” “divine,” “virtuous” and “sweet” woman as written in the play.
I would have preferred to see all of these fine actors in a period version of the play, without all the distractions of the modern day. In that version I think they could have been quite good. Instead of focusing their attention on the outward trappings of the play, they could have been allowed to pay attention to their performances, and the power of the language.
As it was, I think their performances were rushed and unfocused, and they were not allowed to take time with the language.
I encourage you to see this production for yourself. It is one of Shakespeare's greatest masterpieces and you should see it as many productions of it as you can.

Cheers,
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