First Night: Othello, National Theatre, London

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
4.00

Othello pays a glorious tribute to Hytner's decade at the National

A decade ago, almost to the month, Nicholas Hytner launched his new regime at the National with Adrian Lester in the title role of a searingly sceptical modern-dress version of Henry V, timed to a nicety to coincide with the onset of the Iraq War. Now he celebrates ten largely glorious years at helm with a similarly updated Othello, again with Lester in the lead, this time partnered, in the role of Iago, by Rory Kinnear, an actor who has especially blossomed (in parts ranging from Sir Fopling Flutter to Hamlet) at this address under Hytner's benign rays. 

Lester is in the odd position of coming to the titular role (after many years of anticipation), fresh from having just won the Critics' Circle Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the pioneering real-life African-American thespian, Ira Aldridge (1807- 67). Rousing enormous controversy, the latter was drafted in to play Othello at Covent Garden when the pre-eminent tragedian of the era, Edmund Kean, collapsed and had to withdraw. Lester brilliantly showed you a young innovator trying to inject emotional realism and a sense of a danger into the melodramatic “teapot”-acting of the age, only to fall foul of double standards and a racist misreading of the play. This alleges that, duped into frothing jealousy by Iago, the great General Othello reverts to a “natural” barbarism that is second nature to a black actor.

One can only begin to imagine how Aldridge would marvel if his spirit could time-travel and view Hytner's brilliantly acted (both leads are stunning), acutely penetrating and deeply disturbing account of the play which is part of the Travelex £12 season. Because we are uncomfortable with Renaissance notions of grandeur, recent productions have tended to set the play in colonial outposts of the 1920s and 30s. This production goes for broke in an up-to-the-minute version where there are black and female faces in the army that finds itself malingering, once the threat from the Turks evaporates, as it awaits redeployment in an ugly military compound in Cyprus (cue helicopters and some fine, jabbing mood music). 

An understated Othello sounds like a contradiction in terms, but until Iago's poison starts to take effect, Lester gives us a figure of such quietly natural authority and unforced charisma that he does not need to raise his voice and even shows amusement as well a vague sadness when he recounts how Desdemona was smitten by tales of his exotic past. Only her father, Brabantio (William Chubb) emerges as an unreconstructed racist; the other senators recoil from off-colour references to colour.  Kinnear's Iago is a balding, faintly Cockney bar-room-bigot type, masquerading as a blokey you-get-what-it-says-on-the-tin merchant. The settings are studiedly anti-heroic – such as the gent's lavatory where Iago stages the eavesdropping scene and Kinnear superbly stresses the horrible, queasy comedy of the villain's fathomless amorality and efficient resourcefulness. When Othello slumps at his feet in an epileptic fit, this Iago, preoccupied with his next step, absently takes sip from the glass of water he'd readied for his boss. 

If this production establishes that race is just one of the insecurities Iago plays on, it also brings out a sickening symmetry. Kinnear's performance may be wonderfully low-key, but you can sense how Iago's revealed “motives” are just a set of disguises that strain to contain the inchoate nihilism that drives him. The effect of the evil on this Othello is to shatter him radically into a battery of bewildered, jostling selves that can never recover even a “default position”. Lester conveys this brilliantly in the scene where he murders Olivia Vinall's rather droopy and insufficiently mettlesome Desdemona and in the unlovely aftermath.

Perhaps it's the fact that the bedroom here is strip-lit and flimsily Ikea furnished that resensitises you to the bleak, joyless, floundering farce into which the episode descends. The wonder of Lester's performance is that it captures all the discordant voices – the harrowing inconsolable sobs of the man who knows he has destroyed, in Desdemona, his life's meaning; the desperate clutching at straws and excuses; the grandiose hideously self-contradictory coup de theatre of being both outsider/criminal and executioner - and still makes you feel the pity of it. The production is an un-operatically terrifying take on the play and no easy debunking exercise. It stands as a properly provocative vindication of a decade of modernised Shakespeare at Hytner's National Theatre. 

To August 18 (further performances beyond August will be announced in June); there is an NT Live Broadcast on 2 September; 020 7452 3000.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past