A COLD ANGRY CRUSHING SYSTEM
It’s a cold unadorned monochrome scene: courts, brawls and bedchamber all framed on three sides by vast looming tiered steps and a high flat parapet. Sometimes a a soliloquy or confrontation is watched by the dark-clad cast who sit immobile on those steps or suddenly mime a movement together. The programme calls them “System”. Sometimes there are flaring handheld torches. As it opens, the scandal of the Moor having run off with fair Desdemona is explicitly racial: Othello’s noble speech about his wooing – “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them” is interrupted with racist shouts. Rodrigo waves a noose.
There’s a powerful sense of class, too. Most British productions carefully make it clear that Othello is a gentleman, a general: remember Adrian Lester in the role, ten years ago here but familiar from NT Live. In shows like this his eloquent speeches help this sense of nobility and only villains see him as a savage. Yet Clint Dyer, the first black director to do the play at the National, actually hints in his setting that the black man has some quality of dangerousness which is alien even to the brawling yobbish fellow-soldiers of the System. Giles Terrera (lately so gloriously likeable in this theatre as gay Dr Sam, in Blues for an Alabama Sky). opens with a spear-carrying dance, and moves with a slinky athleticism different to the men around . And in an arresting moment at the end of the first half when Iago has just sown the seeds of jealousy, above Terera’s lonely agony the dark figures on the steps suddenly appear in crude horror-movie blackamoor masks – white eyes, red lips, the full minstrel caricature. I still don’t know what to think: is it an evocation of his paranoiac torment being especially a black thing?. If so, it certainly felt uneasy.
That uneasiness, though, is perhaps the triumph of the production. Paul Hilton’s Iago is masterly, terrifyingly efficient in his gaslighting of Othello and visually an elegant opposite of him: a cold dapper officer-class figure, sometimes lit alone in front of the dark figures on the steps so that a ghastly light falls on his narrow pale face with its clipped moustache (my companion was reminded of Oswald Mosley). But as the story moves to its fearful end it feels more like a play about another aspect of the System: toxic misogyny, all there in the text. Not only Iago but the other men, even good Cassio, speak scornfully of women as things to be owned and conquered but never believed. And they shine: Rosy McEwen is a less gentle, more defiant Desdemona than some, a little Sloaney, a bit stiff, meeting her husband’s accusations as much with scorn at their absurdity as with hurt. Emilia, a wife harshly treated by Iago, seems gigglingly commonplace at first but rises to heroic defiance. In the final, properly painful bedroom scene their two heads, one golden and one flaming red, are the only pops of colour in that dark world. Maybe we do sometimes need, a cold angry production like this. Which is the reason for the fourth star.
Box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 21 Jan
A live performance will be filmed and then streamed from 23-27 feb in cinemas