Othello

23/2/23

NT Live: Cineworld, Edinburgh

Although we’re watching it in a cinema, Clint Dyer’s Othello is avowedly theatrical, overtly referencing the play’s stage history via a series of projected images as the audience trickles in. It’s a powerful conceit, acknowledging the fact that our interpretations of classic texts change with the times, informing us that this will be an Othello for the 2020s (and far removed from Olivier’s infamous 1960s blackface).

Dyer brings the play’s racism into sharp focus, as well as its sexism. Moving the action to the 1930s means that the widespread bigotry Othello (Giles Terera) endures fits into a recognisable framework of fascism. Brabantio (Jay Simpson), who doesn’t want his daughter to marry ‘a Moor’ – not even a super-soldier, credited with defeating the Turkish army – is far from alone in his prejudice. Indeed, we have a whole System (the chorus), all too willing to endorse his view. Roderigo (Jack Bardoe) is not played here as an amusing fool; instead, he is a jingoist, short on reason but bold in his assertions. Thus, as the only Black actor on stage, Terera’s Othello is isolated and visibly different from those around him, and his relationship with the politically-aware Desdemona (Rosy McEwen) is as much ideological as it is romantic.

In this context, it’s no surprise that an unscrupulous schemer such as Iago (Paul Hilton) can thrive. He is the ultimate embodiment of toxic masculinity, propelled by self-entitlement and envy; Hilton makes this Iago deliciously sinister. He abuses everyone: his wife, Emilia (Tanya Franks) bears the brunt of his frustration, but no one is immune. His bitter resentment sours everything, drags everybody down. Othello doesn’t stand a chance against such an insidious adversary, in such an imbalanced world.

Chloe Lamford’s set is stark and monochrome: a semicircular series of steps, suggestive of a Greek amphitheatre. The chorus heightens this notion, acting as a kind of on-stage audience, reflecting us back at ourselves. We are all the System, it seems to say; we are all complicit. The costumes (by Michael Vale) continue the monochrome theme, highlighting the binary opposition of black and white.

This is an excellent production: bold, contemplative, kinetic and engaging. Terera captures both Othello’s strength and his failings, his dignity and his deficiencies. We see his greatness, but also recognise and despise his misogyny when he tries to justify murdering Desdemona by saying he loved her “too well”. McEwen imbues Desdemona with a steadfast nature, confident and assertive to the end, but it is Franks’ Emilia who really surprises: I’ve never been so aware of her as a victim before, nor of her bravery in finally speaking out.

Dyer’s Othello is a complex, clever piece of work. It’s not a radical reworking – indeed, it’s almost entirely true to Shakespeare’s text – but the lens is very different.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

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