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.