As the audience enters the National’s Lyttleton Theatre for Clint Dyer’s new production of Othello, the stage is obscured by a flashing projection in black and white. The constantly changing images are posters from previous versions of the play, with their years of production shown in stark block letters. Although this arresting image might seem to signpost an interest in the time and place of Othello and its various reimaginings, from the moment the play starts it becomes clear that this production has chosen to take a step away from this preoccupation with setting and allow the play to speak for itself – a move carried off with great success and which other productions would do well to emulate in the years to come.
Following on from a 20th century obsessed with staging Shakespeare in their own time, or else in a clearly demarcated period to which the company felt the play particularly apt, the current trend in Shakespearean reimagining seems to be a removal of all timeliness and even sense of place. The Globe’s new production of Henry V at the Sam Wanamaker has taken this approach so far you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a workshop performance as the ten actors enter the stage dressed in casual contemporary clothing, taking their seats on plastic chairs on either side of a green-washed stage. The Globe’s production perhaps goes a little too far in its attempt at anonymity, using the actors for so many roles that it becomes hard to establish any sense of connection to the characters. However, their answer to this, having an actor announce each scene and some actors even the name of the character they are playing, is inspired. It feels like an admission from Shakespearean practitioners at the highest level that the plays are fundamentally a bit hard to follow sometimes, and a helping hand along the way, far from interrupting the experience of the production, actually allows the audience to enjoy that experience rather than missing out on a crucial scene because they can’t remember the significance of a minor character who hasn’t appeared since Act I Scene III.
Dyer’s Othello stops short of providing fourth wall-smashing asides to keep the audience up to speed, instead relying on the paciness of the production to ensure that no one’s attention is lost for a minute. The show begins with Giles Terrera’s Othello spotlit centre stage, performing a solo fight sequence, at the end of which he raises his arms to the sounds of a cheering crowd. This is the only hint we get as to the social context of the play: an ex-slave to judge by the scar marks on his back, Othello has gained freedom through success in the fighting arena and risen through the ranks of the army to hold a position of status in a white-dominated society. In the crucial ‘temptation scene’, Othello’s fighting background is evoked again through the use of a punching bag steadied by Paul Hilton’s laconic Iago whilst Othello furiously pounds away, reminding us that his rise through physical prowess must create a constant anxiety about losing his position if he ever allows his strength to slip. Indeed, Lucie Pankhurst’s excellent movement direction throughout ensures this frantic energy is never lost, with light and sound transitions almost exclusively cued by actor’s movements making for exceptionally seamless and fast-paced scene changes.
The use of the ensemble cast, or ‘System’ as they are credited in the programme, is also used as a powerful backdrop for the actions of the central characters. They transform Iago’s usually cartoonish villainous soliloquies into public events, making him seem more like a compere introducing his future acts to a delighted audience. At other times they fade into the background and are used to mirror Iago or Othello’s thought process, shifting position in unison on a crucial word. Their synchronicity throughout the play provides a physical evocation of the ‘hive mind’ effect, as the crowd, through their physical movements and a few well-chosen moments of speaking in unison, unanimously supports whatever Iago is saying or doing. When this group begins to move out of sync in the final scene, therefore, with individual actors twitching and mirroring at different times, it takes the audience a while to believe what they are seeing, and the effect is an extremely unsettling representation of an unsound mind.
Apart from the triumphs of the production as a whole, with Paul Hilton’s sardonic and playful Iago setting the tone, standout performances were given by Tanya Franks as Emilia and Rory Fleck Byrne as a naive and bumptious Cassio. One of the greatest problems to overcome in a performance of Othello is making the anti-hero pleasant enough that we believe Othello can reasonably love and trust him to the extent he obviously does. Hilton’s charm and charisma made this leap, as it was all too easy as an audience member to feel we are being included in the joke being played on the gullible, earnest Othello, whilst really we too are falling under Iago’s spell. Even the moment of highest drama and tragedy, where Iago arrives at the scene of Cassio’s death (carefully orchestrated by him) and pretends to be enraged at the very prospect, was punctuated with audience laughter at the performance I saw due to Hilton’s ridiculously dramatic performance of the pretence. Despite this almost comic characterisation throughout, or indeed because of it, his final scene and slaying of Emilia is shockingly horrific, as we are sharply reminded of the truly repellant nature of this character.
Unfortunately I found Rosy McEwan’s performance as Desdemona a little lacking, with her relationship to Othello proving the point that intimacy does not equal chemistry: despite the frankly alarming amount of on-stage kissing, I didn’t find the relationship particularly convincing and therefore didn’t much care when it broke down. Much more interesting and heart-breaking was the portrayal of the relationship between Iago and Emilia, allowing Iago’s nastier side to be exposed as he switched between romantic persuasion and violent coercion, in stark contrast to his sycophantically charming interactions with other characters.
Overall, this production brings a refreshingly stripped-back approach to the play, focusing on characterisation and using striking visual effects to draw the focus onto the interactions between individuals and the ‘System’ of collective thought. Dyer proves that Shakespeare doesn’t need an apt historical moment to resonate with its audience, but should be allowed to function, like the work of any other playwright, on its own merits.
Othello is showing at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre 23rd November – 21st January
William Salter, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons