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DramaLondonReview

Othello – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Clint Dyer

Othello has always been Iago’s play. And more Emilia’s than Desdemona’s. The National’s new version, directed by Death of England’s Clint Dyer, is no different; Iago’s deceitfulness is more intriguing than Othello’s gullibility. But where recent productions of Shakespeare’s play have sought to uncover themes other than racism – for instance in 2015 the RSC cast a black Iago while Intermission Theatre’s version sported an entirely black cast in 2019 – Dyer’s take on the play refocuses on the colour of Othello’s skin.

Dyer’s course is signalled as the audience takes its seats. Projected on the set are posters and playbills of older productions of Othello, including Orson Wells who, of course, ‘blacked up’ to play the role and Ira Aldridge, aka the African Roscius, a black man who played the role in the UK in the 1820s and 30s to critical acclaim. With such a start is seems as if Dyer’s production will be self-aware, and gesture towards the play’s history, but once the show starts much of this self-referential nature is lost.

However, Dyer makes certain that the racism explored in the play is stark. And never is this more clear when Othello, played by Giles Terera, appears without his shirt. His back shows the weals caused by whipping, but it’s a shame that the make-up isn’t better as some in the audience might mistake the scars as tape keeping his mic in place. More successful is the way Dyer forefronts the ‘trial’ in which Othello has to defend himself against Desdemona’s angry father, and in the way that Othello’s superiors repeatedly refuse to shake his hand when he offers it as a greeting or a goodbye.

But when we enter world of jealousies and handkerchiefs, Dyer’s adaptation is more traditional. It’s also very tense and unlike the National Theatre’s previous Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear that placed Shakespeare’s tragedy firmly in its military setting, Dyer’s Othello is played out in a civic arena. Chloe Lamford’s set of steep treacherous steps resembles an amphitheatre and to complement the Greek design, Dyer uses a chorus, which is a constant presence on stage. In the programme, however, this chorus is referred to as ‘The System’, perhaps a nod to the systemic racism ever present in society.

The chorus is a nice device at times, giving Iago’s soliloquies an immediate and intimate audience. But at other times the chorus is wildly distracting; when the action reaches its crescendo in Desdemona’s bedroom the twitching of the chorus completely disrupts the series of violent events that make up the play’s conclusion.

As Othello, Terera doesn’t really come alive until the second half. And only once do we see him happy and relaxed, when he spars with Iago in a boxing ring. His descent into a jealous rage happens too quickly and too suddenly, but despite his actions he remains a victim of Iago’s dangerous lies. Paul Hilton is a particularly sleazy Iago and it’s hard to understand why Othello values him as a friend. Sometimes Iago can be played with a certain amount of charm or mischief but here Wilton prattles and simmers, looking at some points like Basil Fawtly with his hair and moustache.

Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona is obedient and calm, and so struggles to stand out, but Tanya Franks shines as a harassed Emilia who has to run up and down the stairs more than any other character. Timid and scared, Emilia does whatever her husband Iago says. With a cut on her face and her arm in a dressing, Emilia is a victim of domestic abuse, but again the make-up is not convincing and it could be unclear whether it’s the actor or the character who carries the injuries.

Playing at three hours long, this Othello does drag in places and for all the lights, torches and a rumbling sound design that add plenty of atmosphere to Dyer’s dystopia, there’s a nagging sense that this production is more style than substance. It doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Runs until 21 January 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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2 Comments

  1. Absolutely accurate review. It’s also worth mentioning that we had enough of the amphitheatrical stairs and the chorus on top of it in Europe in the last 3 years. It’s easy built, aesthetic and requires zero directing, but we’ve watched it enough.

  2. Having read so many gushing reviews, it’s a pleasure finally to find a more critical one. Having seen this production yesterday, I was left singularly unmoved. In no particular order, I would criticise:
    – The set. Presenting the play inside a concrete municipal car park, there is no differentiation between Venice and Cyprus, between the battlements and the bedroom. I expected the skateboarders from outside on stage at any moment.
    – The relationship between Othello and Iago. It is, of course, notoriously difficult to convince an audience that Othello trusts and values ‘honest Iago’ but this Iago is such a puny malcontent, it is impossible to believe he is in the military, let alone that any soldier wouldn’t kick him on sight.
    – The relationship between Othello and Desdemona. The latter is such a strong-willed bossyboots, demanding that Othello give Cassio his place back, that I expected him to salute and obey. I understand that modern sensibilities demand our heroines to have ‘agency’ but this portrayal reads against the text so strongly, it lacks credibility that Desdemona allows herself to be smothered at the climax. These two leads also have zero chemistry – sexual or romantic.
    Great that this director has a strong vision and directed ‘Othello’ his way – I am all for that – but it didn’t work for me. (Sample of one.)

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