For pure heart-fluttering excitement, the combination of Shakespeare and big name actors is hard to beat. Macbeth and James McAvoy earlier this year, Richard II and David Tennant from October, and somewhere in the middle Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear punctuate the theatrical year with spine tingling anticipation. Shakespeare’s plays breath with charismatic actors who can take reign of uncompromising characters, and Nic Hytner’s production, visceral and sharp, delivers in those terms.
Having said that, the first twenty minutes were not as promising. Pubs and alleyways and indistinct boardrooms, soldiers on leave in ill fitting civilian clothes (and ill at ease civilian mode), the setting was too drab to set the imagination alight. Landing on Cyprus, the story started gathering momentum, but it was Iago manipulating Cassio in one almighty brawl that set the production on its proper course. Once the seeds of jealousy and doubt are planted in Othello’s mind, the story started hurling to the finish like a wild horse: beautiful and scary and dangerous.
Without a doubt, the production finds its justification in its two leads: Adrian Lester’s Othello is a charismatic and graceful leader until jealousy robs him of sanity, dignity and power. The “green eyed monster” possesses him fully and Adrian Lester makes the transition effortlessly. His lucid moments, his rage, even his love are different sides of the same uncontrollable force that consumes him. Rory Kinnear’s Iago starts with a desire for vengeance but finds psychopathic pleasure in manipulating people: he gets drunk in the power and enjoys the unpredictability of his actions. As a narcissistic creature devoid of self doubt, he makes great use of his charisma: recounting his imaginary – and accidental – seduction by Cassio is a moment of comic genius. Their scenes together sizzle and the shifting of power is fascinating to watch.
Lyndsey Marshal’s Emilia is another tour de force: a soldier with a clear understanding of the male dominated power structure, she survives the military and her husband by being something other than herself. The moment she decides her soul is more important than her life, she becomes the moral centre of the play. Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio is appropriately pure and naive but without appearing weak, a tricky balance to strike.
In the vast space of the Olivier stage, so much of the action takes place in confined boxes: Vicki Mortimer’s design restricts the action in small spaces: a drab office, a dirty lavatory, a plain spartan bedroom. Emotions and people bounce of the walls and fight for air. It makes for a hotbed of action but it robs the characters of a nobler larger purpose. Maybe that’s the point: small people living big emotions, destroyed without a way out.