As I recall, the last National Theatre ‘Othello’ – from 2013 – didn’t make it about race.
Rory Kinnear’s terrifying Iago was happy to viciously slur Adrian Lester’s Moorish general Othello. But it was just one tool in his arsenal, and with a relatively diverse cast, and a modern setting, the fact Othello was Black seemed less of a factor in his downfall: it was essentially Iago’s single-minded hatred that did for him.
Nine years on, and in NT deputy boss Clint Dyer’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Venice is an oppressive, deeply racist place, existing in a stylised, 1930s-redolent twilight. Early scenes that would normally exist to show how established Giles Terera’s erudite Othello is in the city-state are here deeply uncomfortable. Jack Bardoe’s feckless Roderigo, out to get Othello because of jealousy over his relationship with Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona is still pretty ineffectual. But here he is backed by a large, torch-wielding mob.
In a gesture that feels ironically iconoclastic in an era where the NT has (justified!) diversity targets for casts, Terera is the only non-white member of the ensemble – he’s painfully isolated. In later scenes, the white ensemble simply sits on Chloe Lamford’s step set, and stare at him, moving together with eerily unnatural coordination. The sense of Othello constantly wading through a series of micro – and not so micro – aggressions is relentless: there’s something particularly upsetting about his boss the Duke (Martin Marquez) refusing to shake his proffered hand early on.
Fluting voiced and thoughtful, Terera’s Othello is a distinct contrast to the coarse, thuggish world around him, in a production that suggests white rage and Black mental health problems are inextricably linked in a white-dominated society. Terera’s Othello is pretty resilient. But his resilience is like a seawall – once it’s breached, it’s breached.
And the man who does the breaching is Paul Hilton’s Iago. A stoop-shouldered schemer with a toothbrush moustache, side parting and black shirt (or should that be Blackshirt?), he looks like a sadsack satirical cartoon of Hitler. He’s not obviously driven by racial prejudice himself: like Heath Ledger’s Joker if he were to have become a small-time politician rather than a killer clown, he is mercurial and nihilistic, his actions largely unfathomable. He wants to destroy Othello, for reasons that aren’t clear and possibly don’t exist. While Kinnear’s Iago felt recognisable as a psychopath, Hilton is an agent of pure chaos: if he wasn’t destroying Othello, he’d be destroying somebody else. But because of his target, he deftly manipulates and stokes the public’s inbuilt racism – in the most stylised scenes, he literally makes the mob jerk around like blank-faced puppets on strings.
It is a super-bleak take on a super-bleak play
When he poses as a concerned friend to Othello in order to turn him against Desdemona, this Iago is simply relentless – the scene feels utterly gruelling, with the sense that Iago won’t leave or shut up until he has succeeded.
Race isn’t the only tension here: as well as sexual jealousy, there’s class. McEwen’s Desdemona is bolshy and self-confident, far more self-assured than her husband. While he’s beginning to buckle under Iago’s onslaught of lies and innuendos, she does herself no favours by repeatedly getting up in his face about the prospect of reemploying Rory Fleck Byrne’s handsome Cassio – exactly what Iago wants her to do. It’s a refreshing reading of the role generally from McEwen: within the limits of the text, her Desdemona is assured and often sarcastic, delivering the meeker lines witheringly. She is not afraid of her husband and doesn’t sense any danger from him until the very end – after almost three hours of tension, the final collapse is sudden and catastrophic.
Dyer’s production is crisp, original and brutal, with strikingly sinister choreography from Lucie Pankhurst and magnificently doomy sound design and composition from Benjamin Grant. It seems perverse to say it feels fresh to approach ‘Othello’ as a play about race. But such is its complicated history – tainted by its long association with blackface – it’s understandable that white directors like Nick Hytner and Sam Mendes haven’t felt it’s their place to use the play as a vehicle to comment on Black people’s lived experiences. But Black director Dyer can, and his production is a remarkable, harrowing experience, in which the greatest tragedy is the sense that in this society, Othello has already lost.
If there’s a downside, it’s that this ‘Othello’ doesn’t have the dynamism of most productions. The die is cast from the opening scheme and there’s no light or relief in the darkness. It is a super-bleak take on a super-bleak play. But that’s not to say it’s in any way a chore: this is a horribly gripping production.