He fucked a pig for Charlie Brooker (in ‘Black Mirror’) and presumably paid off the mortgage with his recurring role as an MI6 dogsbody in the recent Bond films, but balding, babyfaced Rory Kinnear is apparently too normal-looking for the stardom that his talents surely deserve. Which is alright by me: every time he appears on stage is a bonus, and the NT’s much anticipated ‘Othello’ is no exception.
It’s not a solo show: Adrian Lester is powerful and poignant in the title role of the doomed black general. And director Nicholas Hytner is the man with the guiding vision for this taut, claustrophobic interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy (it’s sobering to think this might be the last time the NT boss – who steps down in 2015 - directs one of the Bard’s works here).
But it is Kinnear as Othello’s nemesis Iago who steals the show in Hytner’s modern dress military production, where most of the action takes place in the middle of the night, under disorientating arc lights or inside the sterile pre-fab army command buildings of Vicki Mortimer’s set.
Iago is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest villain, a trusted subordinate of Othello’s who wrecks his general’s life and marriage because he's been passed over for promotion. Usually he’s portrayed as unhinged; but Kinnear presents a far more unnerving interpretation.
His Iago is a blokey everyman whose demolition of his boss’s psyche via a drip feed of lies and innuendo seems to be more a response to the exaggerated tensions and chronic boredom of life in the field than any real psychosis. He is, in a very real sense, a workplace bully. The most chilling thing about his wisecracking, estuary-accented villain is how ordinary he is: at the play’s climax, there is a terrifying look of incomprehension on Kinnear’s face, as if he cannot fathom the devastation he has wrought, or what he got out of it.
With an ensemble that encompasses various ethnicities, Othello’s race is largely irrelevant here. Instead the tragedy of the excellent Lester’s dignified general is that he is a military man – he loves his vivacious young wife Desdemona (excellent newcomer Olivia Vinall), but he really doesn’t understand her, or much about life outside of tight army power structures.
What Hytner’s gripping, lucid and slightly too dour production makes eminently clear is that in a military world, it’s not Lester’s black man who is the outsider, but Vinall’s civilian woman. Gaily holding hands with her soldier friend Casio, Desdemona’s free-spirited, boho behaviour is completely at odds with her husband’s. Lester’s general falls apart because as a man used to rigid discipline, he simply isn’t capable of understanding his wife’s behaviour – he turns on Desdemona less from rage than confusion, and it is utterly heartbreaking. Andrzej Lukowski