My, but she takes a long time to die, Desdemona, twitching on her barrack mattress, doll-blonde and bare-legged, as her husband crushes the breath from her. Just when he thinks the deed is done, she splutters back to life, pleading. He could stop then, could maybe save her, but he’s gone too far, so he plunges on, laying his weight on her until she is still, his hands wrapped round her delicate neck. It’s awful and protracted and upsetting – as it should be – with Nicholas Hytner’s production making much of their physical disparity, the brutality of it: she’s so fragile-looking and exposed, in her knickers and the tiny child-like T-shirt she wears to bed, his muscled, uniformed form all but obliterating her.
It’s sexual too, all that writhing, there on the contested bed. Adrian Lester’s Othello doesn’t rape her, but there are intimations of reclamation in the methodical way he goes about putting out her light, still palpably, physically drawn to her, even when he his sniffing her sheets to detect traces of betrayal.
Hytner’s production is the third in a sort-of triptych, together with his Henry V (starring Lester) and his Hamlet (starring Kinnear) and it shares a similar contemporary earth-toned aesthetic. At its best it succeeds in saying some interesting things about the weaponisation of men in the military, with Othello, the career soldier, pinwheeling from love-struck to rage-fuelled in half a heartbeat, his jealousy so intense it makes him vomit. And though Iago tries to rationalise his hatred, it seems to spring from some deeper, primordial place, controlling him rather than the other way round.
With their faces close-cropped and deep shadowed, their eyes burning out at you, the NT poster campaign pits Lester and Kinnear against each other like prize fighters, the Rumble in the Olivier if you will, and it’s difficult not to look at it through this frame, though it seems reductive to do so as both performances are powerful, both rich in their own way. Lester’s Othello is commanding and full of fire – he has a voice you could warm yourself by and hulks out convincingly, flipping over a table with a flick of his wrist whilst roaring with rage – but it’s perhaps the nature of the play that Kinnear’s Iago is the more compelling figure (though it’s in no way inevitable that Iago should dominate – Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Donmar’s 2008 version remains one of the most intense, controlled Shakespearean performances I’ve seen), coming across as a bit of a bruiser, Phil Mitchell with added smarts, driven, cold-eyed and calculating but with a dash of the schoolboy in the way he air-punches and victory shimmies when he gets one over on the object of his malice. As with his Hamlet, Kinnear’s performance has a kind of ease to it, there’s a clarity of intention to his delivery, and he juggles the verse as if he spoke that way every day, though there are times when the mechanics of it all feel a bit too visible.
Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona fades into the background a bit, but that’s again perhaps a consequence of the role. (In making Desdemona an absence, The Q Brothers’ Othello the Remix – performed as part of the Globe to Globe festival last year – was one of the more interesting readings of this play and the placing of women within it). Lyndsey Marshal’s Emelia, while furious and forceful in her loyalty, seems a bit trapped in a role that feels particularly contradictory in its modern context.
For while the production’s military setting makes sense in terms of translating the hierarchies and power games – this man’s, man’s, man’s world – into a recognisable present, embroidered handkerchiefs aside, there are times when it feels a bit tired, a bit ‘done’, a rehashed Iraqistan which we’ve seen before and we will see again. It does at least allow for a great, lively and messy, mess-room scene – with a couple of bikini pin-ups the only thing to break up the bare walls – in which Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio is forced to chug down a lager fountain while being beerily cheered on by his fellow soldiers.
Vicki Mortimer’s flood-lit military base of a set is intentionally bulky and ugly, a transient space, devoid of home comforts, all concrete, harsh strip-lighting, and cheap plaster board walls: when Othello punches out in anger his fist goes straight through. Though there’s something a bit effortful about the set, with its numerous sliding panels allowing various bedrooms, offices and yards to emerge and retreat, its very blankness is an asset, for in this fenced-in place of sun and sweat and tension and little in the way of distraction which doesn’t come in a can, it’s plausible that here passions, jealousies, petty vendettas, could grow and spread unchecked like bacteria on a petri dish.
Othello will be broadcast on 26th September 2013 as part of NT Live.