Most conversations about the National Theatre of late have speculated about the possible identity of outgoing Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner’s successor. The perfect remedy to such chat comes as two of our finest stage performers go toe to toe in Othello, drawing focus rightly back to the stage.
In the red corner we have Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester, returning to the National and Hytner a decade after making headlines in a modern-set Henry V. He’s back in contemporary fatigues, just a bit greyer, for this Othello played out in the military barracks of today’s Cyprus.
As chance, or the theatrical gods would have it, his last stage outing prior to this came in the award-winning Red Velvet, telling the story of 19th century black American Ira Aldridge and his less than smooth debut on the London stage, deputising for the iconic Edmund Kean as Othello.
Whether consciously or not, there’s something of that performance in Lester’s own Moor, overarching stylisation of movement and gesture flowing through his performance as he switches from a middle-aged man swollen and adolescently joyful with the love of a young wife to a roaring, paranoid and ferociously vengeful villain.
In the blue corner, Olivier Award winner and NT regular under Hytner, Rory Kinnear who, in contrast to Lester’s grand gesticulation plays manipulative Iago with a hint more realism. As we first meet him, beer in hand, outside a pub, we’re let into a conversation exposing his extreme disgruntlement at being passed over for promotion. It’s a discussion had in bars the country over, but this leads to far darker retribution.
Kinnear’s Iago artfully ensnares his prey with partially spoken hints, dropping suggestions like cigarette butts so casually that they could almost be missed, and finds all the humour in Shakespeare’s arch villain. He talks to, rather than at, the audience, letting us in on the conspiracy to the point that it becomes hard not to like him, just a little.
To experience the scintillating performances of Lester and Kinnear alone would be a treat, but they spur on the rest of the cast.
Rising star Jonathan Bailey, who has been reporting the news from ITV hit Broadchurch for the last eight weeks, is a geekishly exuberant Cassio, the Lieutenant dragged into Iago’s plot. Tom Robertson brings much of the production’s comic relief as an easily suckered Roderigo and newcomer Olivia Vinall plays a Desdemona consumed by young love and adoration.
Though much of that recent talk has been about the loss of Hytner as a figurehead, this Othello reminds us again of his talent as a director. There is no feeling of forcedness to the setting, no gimmick, few bells and whistles – though Vicki Mortimer’s boxy set holds a handful of surprises – just an exceptionally clear, thrilling telling of a tremendous story that gives his supremely talented performers the space they need to excel.
If you are unable to get to the National Theatre to see the production, it will be broadcast live to 250 UK cinemas, and more worldwide, on 26 September, as part of National Theatre Live.