By William Shakespeare
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1 9PX
To October 5
It was only a matter of time before Adrian Lester, one of Britain's foremost black actors, was asked to play The Moor of Venice, and possessing as he does a natural nobility, the part fits him like a glove. Lester is partnered by the National's current rising star, Rory Kinnear, who makes the cunning Iago very ordinary, but all the more believable for that.
When off duty, dressed in geezer clothes and shod in DMs, this Iago is all beer and cigarettes and macho bonhomie down the pub, and so he anchors the character as a familiar bloke - albeit one hiding some seriously psychotic tendencies.
Set in a modern military installation in Cyprus, the dynamics of a modern army are used to shed light on the play's central problem: how can the apparently brilliant army officer be so gullible as to be duped by this wide boy? The argument advanced by director Nicholas Hytner is that within the code of military honor, Othello has every reason to trust him. Both, no doubt, have been in hair-raising scrapes in the past where their lives depended on each other and so their mutual trust is rock solid. It's an interesting thesis but Othello's sudden careering from confident commander to bouts of hysterical rage, overturning tables and punching holes in latrine walls, is still hard to swallow.
Designer Vicki Mortimer creates huge gliding concrete barriers that splice across each other and hold perfectly detailed army shelters. With their harsh strip lighting and walls adorned with posters of Page 3 glamor models, they provide a perfect setting for khaki-clad squaddies to engage in drinking games, which inevitably descend into violence. Gareth Fry's sound design of circling helicopters and throbbing rock music also enhances this air of aggression.
The supporting roles are wonderfully played here, with Lyndsey Marshal particularly effective as the good friend Emilia, and Tom Robertson giving us a Hooray-Henry Rodrigo who could have stepped out of Made in Chelsea. In the always thankless role of Desdemona, Olivia Vinall brings a fragile femininity to the piece and manages to make the character affecting rather than merely pathetic.
Of course the evidence of poor Desdemona's infidelity hinges on a mislaid handkerchief (whereas today it would most likely be a stray text message) and this jars rather and demonstrates, yet again, how modern dress solutions often create as many problems as they solve.
The presence of female squaddies (even Emilia is one) is also seriously at odds with a text mired in the misogyny of the period, and as for racism, it would make Wagner blush – "The old black ram is tupping your ewe" is just for openers. A period setting always tempers these excesses whereas here they stick out like a sore thumb. I've also never bought the "relevance" argument about the fad for modern dress Shakespeare. Are audiences really that dim?
The production will be another feather in the cap of Hytner before he departs the National but it again raises the issue of why there is such a blind spot in the mantra of color-blind casting when it comes to Othello. Isn't it patronising that he must always be black? If it's realism you're after (and why would you) he would have to be from the Maghreb and not a black African at all, yet every British actor of African or African-American heritage worth his salt, is led down a path towards accepting this supposed gift of a part. I've never considered it much of a gift myself.