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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable