Theater Review: Othello, by the National Theatre

Last night, I saw the National Theatre’s Othello as part of their NT Live series of plays broadcast to movie theaters in the UK and around the world. Starring Adrian Lester, as Othello, and Rory Kinnear, as Iago, this production has been unanimously praised by the press. The NT Live broadcast is a live, filmed version of the play, from the theater.

I was very disappointed by the performance. I felt it was full of incoherences that nullified my suspension of disbelief, to the point that I actually thought of leaving the cinema before the end. I’m quite perplexed, though, as all the reviews that I have seen online about the play are highly positive. Did I miss something?

Yes and no. Part of my dissatisfaction was that I didn’t buy Rory Kinnear’s Iago. This duplicitous character is hard to play, and requires subtlety to keep from seeming clichéd. I felt that Kinnear chose a style of acting that was out of sync with the character, at least the character in this production’s setting. And there’s the rub: it may have been the setting and staging that ruined it for me.

Othello is a play about soldiers and war, and takes place, for the most part, on Cyprus, where Venetian soldiers are awaiting the Turkish fleet to go to battle. But the fleet sinks, and there is no war to fight, leaving the soldiers to do what soldiers do when there’s nothing to do. Iago, with much time on his hands, plots Othello’s downfall. This production is set in modern time, with an army (curiously wearing British flags on their uniforms; in the play they are Venetians) in a heavily fortified base.

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I was not able to reconcile this with Kinnear’s demeanor, if he is indeed a soldier in a professional army. In Act I, as the senators and Othello are discussing fighting the Turks, Iago stands by a door, his feet splayed, his shoulders hunched, something no soldier would do. His way of speaking throughout the play was overly aggressive; there was no subtlety in his anger. If he was upset that Othello passed him over for promotion, his demeanor would make it surprising that he ever got to the level he did, as Othello’s “Ensign.” (I have nothing against Rory Kinnear as an actor. I recently saw him in a filmed version of Richard II, where he was an excellent Bolingbroke, and am seeing him next week in the NT Live Hamlet.)

Another problem with the setting was the fact that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, was able to be in the military base with her husband. Given the context, this just wasn’t believable, just as having Emilia, Iago’s wife, in uniform, didn’t work.

There was much over-acting in this production. There was a scene where Desdemona was talking to Othello, and Olivia Vinall, as Desdemona, seemed to be playing Carrie Matheson (of Homeland) off her meds. Emilia was stone-cold for much of the play, but in the final bedroom scene, she was over the top. Jonathan Bailey was quite good as Cassio, showing well how he was tricked, but Tom Robertson’s Roderigo was out of place. His limp-wristed, posh-accented character could never have killed Cassio.

So then we get to the two main actors. Richard Lester was fine as Othello, until the final bedroom scene, where he kills Desdemona. All of a sudden, he lost it. I felt he was wooden, overacting, and had trouble showing real emotion. Rory Kinnear remained the same at the end of the play as at the beginning, but at times he slipped out of character, punching the air in delight at a couple of points. All in all, I just wasn’t convinced by either of them.

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So what went wrong? And why did I see something different than dozens of theater reviewers? I can think of two possibilities. The first is that the actors were simply tired. The play started back in April, and the NT Live production was near the end of the run, five months later. The second is the medium, or, more correctly, the way this play was filmed and presented.

NT Live productions aren’t changed when they’re filmed; the cameras have to adapt to the staging and production. So in this play, with many close-ups and tracking shots, there were presumably cameras on the stage itself, which may have jarred the actors. And this is a play that was rehearsed for a stage, not for TV-like close-ups. The way one acts and speaks for a 1,000-seat theater is very different than when one is in front of a camera, and perhaps the actors couldn’t make their big play fit in the small lenses of cameras.

Also, the NT live production of this play was long. In the theater, it runs 3:15, with a 15-minute intermission. The NT Live production ran 3:40, with about 15 minutes of trailers and a useless interview at the beginning, then a 10-minute “feature” at the end of the intermission. Also, the feature takes you out of the theatrical space, yet, when it ends, it simply segues back into the play, destroying any feeling a spectator has of being in the moment. (During the intermission, you see a fixed shot of the audience, with a clock counting down from 15:00 in one corner of the screen.)

The previous NT Live productions I saw didn’t suffer as much from this. One, Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, had no intermission, so there was no way to lose the momentum that was building up in the play. Another, The Audience, was not gripping enough for it to make a difference. NT Live is a wonderful way to see plays, but they really need to resist the urge to include “bonuses,” especially with plays as long as Shakespeare’s.

You know the feeling when you’re watching a movie or play, and you get irked by a few little things, which all add up, making you want to leave? That’s what happened to me. I can understand why many people liked this production, but it just got on my nerves. I hope next week’s Hamlet is better.

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