Othello (National Theatre) @ The Lyttleton Theatre

One of the many issues that Othello presents to a company is the structural imbalance around direct address which sees Iago given a relatively huge proportion of stage time to address the audience directly and develop – willing or unwitting – complicity between himself and the theatre audience. The much-discussed issue this generates is the tendency of audiences to laugh with Iago, whether because those audiences actually concur with Iago’s racism and manipulation or, more generously, because they are complying with the unwritten theatrical contract that invites response to implicit and explicit direct requests for affirmation. If a production wants to tackle rather than perpetuate the racism of Othello, then disrupting this theatrical contract – finding a way to make an audience critically reflective enough that it might not laugh at Iago’s jokes – is only one of the challenges it faces.

Clint Dyer is the first Black director to direct Othello for the National Theatre, and on the Lyttleton’s stage before the production began, a timeline stretching back to the early seventeenth century featuring images of quartos, folio, playbills, posters, and DVD covers from across the centuries positioned this Othello as self-consciously engaged with the play’s performance history. While this device was not revisited, it suggested a cognizance of this production’s intention to enact a step away from a history full of problems, resulting in some bold and often powerful choices that subtly reoriented the dynamics of the play. Chief among these was the casting of every member of the company save Othello, Iago, and Desdemona as part of something called ‘System’ – a black-clad ensemble who sat on the quasi-piazza set designed by Chloe Lamford to observe the action. The System was Iago’s personal audience; during his soliloquies, the lighting shifted to a colder, more clinical light, and the System came to life, leaning in, laughing hilariously on cue, applauding Iago as he held out his arms exuberantly. Producing the rest of the play’s characters from within themselves, the System enacted an embodied metaphor for structural racism, while also serving as an alienating device that offered the most effective counter to Iago’s relationship with the audience that I’ve ever seen. Where the ghoulish System was going to laugh along on Iago’s instruction, the audience – at least at this matinee performance – remained stonily silent.

Paul Hilton’s Iago wanted to be the star of the show. With toothbrush moustache and black shirt and tie – the same uniform worn by the whole System, with numbers on their sleeves – he echoed Ian McKellen’s classic repressed Iago in Trevor Nunn’s production, but also evoked the Blackshirts and other thuggish paramilitary groups. Alone in the central space of the piazza, he beckoned out to the audience, laughing loudly at his own intelligence and audacity, but it was the System who he turned to for the reaction, sometimes needing to touch them to jerk them into awareness of him, at other times choreographing them effortlessly. Iago insisted on our complicity with him – references to ‘my people’ subtly aligned him and the predominantly white System with the audience, while ‘What you know, you know’ were the production’s last words, again addressed outwards – but Dyer’s direction made clear that this was a delusion that he was willing into being, a chorus of imaginary sycophants without personalities beyond their support of him.

Against the System, Giles Terera’s Othello had little defence. Terera’s Othello was quiet but physical; he bore horrific scars across his back (revealed, in a neat but jarring juxtaposition, when his shirt was off because he was coming from his and Desdemona’s bedroom, aligning the exposure of love-making with the exposure of his past abuses). In an opening sequence he was seen training with a stick, an act that was applauded on command by Venice’s higher-ups. But any praise for Othello’s military prowess was immediately undermined by the society’s refusal to accept him being elevated; Coriolanus-like, when raised up on a plinth to be welcomed into society, there were noises of rejection. In another simple but bold move, Roderigo (Jack Bardoe) and Iago were accompanied by most of the System as a baying mob, with handheld flaming torches (evoking the Charlottesville alt-right riots) and screams of derision and anger at the idea of Othello’s liaison with Desdemona. Throughout the whole Council scene, this onstage mob remained dead set against Othello, and even if Othello and Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona managed to convince the Duke (Colm Gormley stepping in for Martin Marquez at this performance) to bless their liaison, the rumblings of the mob and Brabantio’s (Jay Simpson) refusal to take Othello’s proffered hand made clear that the odds were stacked heavily against him.

As the production developed, the influence of the System became psychological as well as literal; there may not have been actual baying mobs onstage, but the watching presence of the System was keenly felt by Othello. Towards the end of the first half, as Iago worked upon Othello (the two sharing a punchbag, in a pretty on-the-nose decision), the System appeared on the steps of the piazza with riot shields and wearing masks with a blackface design on them, a literal embodiment of the racist policing of Othello’s existence, which began working on his mind. Terera’s Othello was always twitchy, inclined to be quiet at the edge of the stage rather than dominating it, and deeply impressionable. His epileptic fit was shockingly physical, involving him throwing himself down the entire height of the piazza steps, but was only part of the distraction that the System reflected back at him, and Terera’s evocation of the external pressures of a racist system turned one man’s downward spiral into an indictment of an entire society.

Committing to this exploration of Othello as an exposure of structural violence and racism led to some fascinating readings, and worked to some extent to limit the self-justifying potential of performances of Iago that seek to texture and complicate the character. Here, Hilton’s Iago was unrepentant in his evil. The first part of the temptation scene made a simple but powerful decision to have Iago needing to constantly re-initiate the conversation; Othello’s statements of ‘Why then he’s honest’ were conversation-enders, and there were long pauses before Iago then tentatively began prodding again. By showing Iago having to work hard to get under Othello’s skin, the production made clear its position that Othello’s actions resulted from attrition, the constant barrage of attacks by Iago, supported by the System. But this wasn’t just Iago. Lodovico, for instance (an excellent Joshua Lacey) was bitterly racist and hostile to Othello throughout; he was barely able to conceal his smug delight at bringing the news from Venice of the transfer of power, but then acted as if Othello’s riled-up reaction was coming from nowhere. During the climax, when Othello stabbed himself, Lodovico began celebrating with Gratiano (Simpson) the seizure of Othello’s lands before the man had even fallen to the ground, talking over Othello’s death moment and already moving past the self-murder of the Black man.

The complexity of the micro-aggressions and contests of power within this society offered further rich readings. Cassio (Rory Fleck Byrne) absolutely loathed Iago, smugly drawing Desdemona away from the foul-mouthed soldier as they waited for Othello’s arrival in Cyprus. Cassio was already downing a hip flash before Iago approached him to enjoin him to drink, and Cassio was barely able to conceal his disdain for Iago, repeatedly trying to walk away, but tempted by the promise of beer. As the revels began, Cassio quickly became bullish and aggressive in his drunkenness, kissing one other soldier passionately, and starting a fight with Montano (Gareth Kennerley) after Roderigo took a bite out of his neck. Cassio shoved a knife into Montano’s shoulder, showing just how far his own propensity for violence would take him. But Cassio was also held up by a system that wouldn’t support Othello or even Iago. The imploring of Desdemona for Cassio against Othello’s wishes prefigured Lodovico’s arrival with news of Cassio’s promotion, and a reminder that this well-connected white boy would ultimately be forgiven, and would never have to wear the same scars that Othello wore.

The subtleties of the production made its crushingly paint-by-numbers didactic direction somewhat frustrating, though. Every technical trick in the book was thrown at the stage in order to control the audience’s gaze as if this were a film. Follow-spots made sure that everyone was looking at the desired point at each given moment (during Othello’s asides while listening to Cassio and Iago, the lights flicked on and off for a shot/reverse shot effect). Video projection underscored Othello and Desdemona’s reactions to events with the theatrical equivalent of triple-underlining and bolding. And most dispiritingly, a consistent droning underscore (which only ceased during the willow scene, presumably because the director realised that the song needed no distraction) flattened the mood of every scene into one of monotonous ominous tension. This last, in particular, was an enormous disservice to actors working hard to manage the ebbs and flows of tension and released within a scene, placing an aural blanket over their nuanced performances. And while the musical stings for SHOCK and TWIST at least spoke to a clear directorial intention, the production seemed to lack faith in its own cast to tell the story themselves, instead treating them as place-holders in an emotional symphony told through lighting and sound cues. I felt lucky to be in the front row, where I felt able to see the actors’ performances in full despite the over-determining technical over-production that threatened to smother them.

The cessation of the underscore during the willow scene, though, at least helped ease the transition into the production’s twinned second focus alongside race – violence against women. This strand of interest was present from the start. Emilia (Tanya Franks) was a nervous woman, bold at times in her speech, but constantly looking around her in fear. She had a large bruise on one side of her face, and her right arm was heavily bandaged; Iago, it was clear, was violently abusing her. When she gave him the handkerchief, she tried to tease him with it, and for her pains found herself pulled down by her hair, he pulling her backwards into a vulnerable position where he could kiss her neck in a horribly violent gesture. Rather than being a bit of abusive character development for Iago, though, this turned out to be part of a thoughtful strand that pervaded the production and, indeed, partially took over from racism as the production’s primary focus in the final act.

McEwen, as Desdemona, was as posh as they come. She spoke all of her lines for the first two hours of the show with an ironic detachment, a constant smile that was mirthless. Her confidence standing alongside her husband (in an outfit that matched his) during the Council scene stemmed from what looked like a lifetime of privilege; if Othello adhered more closely to the edges of the stage, Desdemona walked confidently into the middle of it and spoke to the ruling men fearlessly. Desdemona’s confidence, though, was weaponised against her. The impression she gave was that she had never wanted for anything, never been denied anything, and never been told no. So, when Othello began reacting violently towards her, the only response she knew was to laugh in surprise that he would dare to speak to her in this way, a response that enraged him further; and when she realised he was being serious, her response was to go on the attack, in ways that escalated. This was in no way to cast blame on her; the contrast between the abused Emilia’s attempts to placate her violent husband and Desdemona’s instincts to confront hers rather made clear that, when men decide to hurt women, there is no correct response, no sure-fire defence. It is men who are to blame.

Further, the nuances of class here offered some interesting insights into solidarity. When Othello humiliated Desdemona in front of Lodovico, he pushed her hard away from him; she came back at his summons, and then again returned to the stage, only to be roared away by her husband. But she also stood in uncomprehending confusion at the fact that anyway might dare to treat her this way, and her holding open her arms to Emilia to ask what she had done to deserve this felt tone-deaf when spoken to a woman standing there with bruises and fractures from the even more violent beatings she had endured. Desdemona’s apparent inability to see the abuses visited on a lower-class woman (and Emilia was aligned in this respect with the disregarded Bianca [Kirsty J Curtis], with whom she shared a London accent) offered the inklings of an indictment of a white middle-class feminism that focuses on the instances where a privileged woman’s comfort is disrupted and which fails to find solidarity with women who are further marginalized by class, race, sexuality, gender expression or other factors. Emilia wasn’t immune from this either, distinguishing herself viciously from Bianca. But Desdemona was the one who seemed most cloistered. To this end, the sudden quiet of the willow scene was all-important. The conversation about whether they would cheat on their husbands took a serious turn as Emilia drew attention to her injuries and Desdemona finally seemed to see and recognize the pain Emilia had gone through. Where, earlier, Emilia’s fear of Iago had led her to try to support his schemes, the willow scene offered the key turning point in Desdemona and Emilia’s relationship as the realised that they only truly had one another.

The climactic action saw some radical cutting and reorganization in order to bring its two areas of focus together. Othello’s murder of Desdemona was brutal, visceral, he smothering her while holding her upright before lowering her to the plinth that served as their bed. But the scene was truly Emilia’s. Gratiano and Montano held Iago at knife-point while Emilia worked out what was going on, and Iago kept repeatedly trying to get closer to Emilia in order to silence her; it was only when Othello moved to try and stab Iago that, in the confusion, Iago was able to reach Emilia and stab her, repeatedly, in the back. Emilia had shown extraordinary courage throughout the second half – at different times, both Othello and Iago had grabbed her by her injured arm – and the space given to her revelations here, even while the System twitched in time with Desdemona’s death spasms, privileged her clarity of voice.

In the final reckoning, though, the production struggled to place its final juxtaposition of violence against Black men and violence against women. Othello gave most of his final speech early, ahead of stabbing Iago when he was brought back in. Instead, when Othello finally brought out his sword and turned it on himself, the moment was bathetic. As already noted, Lodovico and Gratiano celebrated the seizure of Othello’s fortune while Othello himself bled out; Iago fell to the ground and repeatedly told us ‘You know what you know’, and the male members of the System gathered around Othello’s fallen body on the steps of the piazza in taunting spectacularization while the female members of the System stood up in a gesture that simultaneously drew attention to the bodies of the two dead women who shared the bed, while some inaudible news-style audio clippings played (I’m not sure if they were meant to be inaudible, but I couldn’t pick out any words). The messaging here was deeply confused, particularly in the dividing of the System. One reading could be the point that the System works against its own members, but it also seemed to me to imply that women (especially white women, the only demographic represented in this cast) can be excused from their participation in racism because of the violence to which they themselves have been subjected, an implication which I can’t imagine was intended. For a production which seemed so desperate throughout its running time to make its points as bluntly as possible, the ambiguity of this final image felt misjudged. But regardless, the production’s thoughtful interrogation of structural racism and misogyny, leaving no-one untouched, felt like a necessary revisioning of the play, a rare Othello that felt necessary.

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