Review – Othello @ National Theatre

As you walk into the Lyttleton, you are immediately struck with the historical significance of Othello.

It cannot be ignored that within the National Theatre, the largest stage is the Olivier, its namesake having played Othello in blackface almost sixty years ago. On the walls surrounding the Lyttleton theatre stage, images, and newspaper snippets of adaptations over the years are projected, and in the centre are the numbers: 1604-2022. And it is only in 2022 that we have the first version of Othello from a Black director on a major British stage, done so by Clint Dyer, deputy Artistic Director of the National theatre.

The use of projection and video within theatre can often be hit and miss, but it was used deftly in this adaptation Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, working in tandem with the highly impressive lighting design (Jai Morjaria) to create a visually striking and multi-faceted viewing experience. The lighting, favouring follow-spots, silhouettes, and practical torches, also framed the ensemble of the piece, illuminating them enough to make us aware of their permanent presence, but not enough to distract from the primary action. Members of the company are plucked from this malevolent ensemble, who otherwise watch the action with an unnerving focus.

It is also important to note that this ensemble is entirely white, with Othello (Giles Terera) seemingly being the only Black member of the cast (and thus, never a member of the ensemble). Within the cast list, the group is listed as the ‘system’, perhaps a nod to systemic racism, a pervasive and insidious force physically manifested in the white bodies and eyes leering at the tragedy playing out in front of them.

Othello, Giles Terera & Rosy Mcewen @ National Theatre: Myah Jeffers

Desdemona (Rosy McEwen) and Iago (Paul Hilton) are also not a part of the ensemble, separated as primary generative forces of the tragedy, along with the eponymous leading man. Their performances were suitably impressive, and I was pleased to watch a version of Othello where Desdemona packs a punch – a direct contrast to the frustrating simpering nature of Emilia (Tanya Franks). This comparison between the two women does not feel accidental, and it is perhaps a commentary of the nature of male violence within the domestic sphere. The play tries to link the tragedy with the real-life occurrences of marital abuse, with projections of quotes implying that this story could be ripped directly from the headlines. In tandem with camera flashes and the projections of newspaper snippets, it is a reminder that these headlines have real people within them, rather than being simply foddered for tabloid gossip.

When he first walks onto the stage, Othello is dressed in a blue full-body costume, similar to an agbada from West African cultures. Desdemona arrives in a similar garb, joining him visually in his Otherness, in striking contrast to the black 50s-era suits that the rest of the cast sport. Once they arrive in Venice, this visual indication is shed in lieu of slick all-black outfits, a stylish but perhaps disappointing choice in favour of the potential within the costume design (Michael Vale). The suits evoke a mid-century Britain, sustained by the brutalist style architecture of the concrete stairs surrounding the stage, feeding into the atmosphere of entrapment of Othello in the literal structure and edifice of the stage space.

The sound design (Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant), was punchy and impactful, becoming increasingly fragmented and littered with echoes, indicating Othello’s deteriorating mental state.

Othello, Giles Tererra @National Theatre: Image Credit Myah Jeffers

As the play reaches its tragic end, the mood becomes increasingly tense as we prepare for the deaths that are sure to occur. However, it felt as though the play was unable to sustain itself emotionally right until the end. The death of Roderigo, with the stage fighting (Kev McCurdy), felt too choreographed, and the strangulation of Desdemona becomes a type of corrupted hug. Perhaps Dyer was trying to avoid the sexually and racially charged image of a Black man strangling his white wife to death in their marriage bed. While I understand this, what was presented as a visual substitute lacked the emotional impact.

Adaptations with Shakespeare can be a challenge, as it is often difficult to take a text (particularly one as seminal as Othello) and bring out something new. There is also the issue of tragic irony with an overfamiliarity with the story, a knowledge of the tragedy that is to come that rids us of our surprise as audience members. While it did not pose something entirely revolutionary, Dyer’s adaptation of Othello was stimulating and energetic, and a bold and historically poignant mode of adapting the troubled play.


Othello runs at the National Theatre until Tuesday 10th January

SUMMARY

Dyer’s adaptation of Othello connects the historical to the modern in a slick and unnerving adaption. As the first depiction of Othello for a major British stage led by a Black director, there is a great historical significance to the play. However, it could be said that the play gets lost in its own history, sacrificing emotional depth in the process.

OUT OF 100

Script
70 %
Story
65 %
Acting
70 %
Characters
65 %
Directing
75 %
Costume
70 %
Soundtrack
70 %
Production Design
70 %
For the Culture
70 %
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