It's not just a book thing!
New member of the LitFest blog team, Jack Colley, wrote this review of Othello after seeing the NT Live production.
Last month I saw the National Theatre production of Othello live at the Performing Arts Centre. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Adrian Lester played Othello and Rory Kinnear, Iago.
Over the last summer, I had read the play and various books discussing it. The phrase which was most used to describe it was ‘domestic tragedy’. Shakespeare presents a portrait of a man whose relationship with his wife crumbles as his trusted servant fills his mind with deceit and suspicion – Othello’s wife is said to be having an affair with Othello’s recently promoted friend, Cassio.
Iago, the trusted servant, ironically is frequently referred to as ‘honest’ by Othello. His motives for destroying Othello’s marital life, and consequently his position of power, are not entirely clear. Whether it is simply because he is envious of Cassio’s rapid promotion or, as one book suggested, his latent homosexuality and attraction to Othello, is unclear.
Having read these opinions together with the text, I felt I knew the play relatively well. However, the difference between reading and watching became very clear in the first few minutes of the performance. By reading the text, the language can be analysed and the themes identified. However, only by watching a performance can they truly be understood: lines are performed, not written; emotions are acted, not stated; climactic silences are experienced, not just relegated to a footnote in a continuous block of text.
Nicholas Hytner set the play on a military base in modern day. Being performed in the Olivier Theatre at the National, the scope for the set was expansive. Hytner used this to his advantage, and so had an office, recreational room, toilets and, of course, the bedroom sliding on and off stage against a background of a military courtyard. This contrasts with the stage Shakespeare himself would have worked with, which typically would have been void of scenery – very much like the Spartan bedroom in which Othello kills Desdemona.
Despite the fact that modern productions can do much more with the sets than Shakespeare could himself, the messages Shakespeare put across are still today just as powerful. This is best reflected by the fact that his plays fit seamlessly into a modern scenario; the comments Shakespeare made on the human condition have not lost their potency or relevance with age.
In terms of the performance itself, I found it very powerful. Othello’s descent into all-consuming paranoia and anger was made credible by Kinnear’s effective delivery of Iago’s lines, and in particular the way in which he dealt with Iago’s voyeuristic tendencies – instead of becoming too vulgar, the lines became highly sinister.
At the end of the play, I felt very fortunate that I was able to have seen the production; not only did I deepen my knowledge of the play, but learnt how important it is that one must never, under any circumstances, misplace their handkerchiefs.