National Theatre at Home review: Othello
James R | On 07, Jan 2021
Adrian Lester is one of the great British actors of his generation. It’s almost a shame, then, that many people will know know him mostly from BBC One’s Hustle – a slick and entertaining show, but hardly Shakespeare. Thank goodness, then, for NT Live, which caught his 2013 Othello on camera, ready to preserve his astonishing turn for years to come.
Lester immediately captivates when he steps on stage, his respected and celebrated general an easy man to listen to, cheer on and – yes – follow into battle. It’s no wonder that he’s risen to his position in the world, with Lester delivering every speech with a thundering authority and magnetic charisma. And yet, at the same time, he never overplays this soldier – he’s not a fool or a madman, just a loyal, devoted military man, and he expects the same thing of everyone in his troop.
That’s all that Iago, his bitter unpromoted sidekick needs to bring about his own dastardly mission, and the dynamic between the two men gives the National Theatre’s modern-set take on Shakespeare’s familiar play an urgent, contemporary edge. For all of Lester’s brilliance, he’s a generous performer too, and gives Rory Kinnear all the space and time he needs to wow the audience with his mellifluous malcontent; Kinnear’s delivery is so naturalistic that it sounds like Iago’s coming up with his deceitful dialogue on the spot. That’s no mean feat, and Kinnear blends that casual chicanery with an internalised landmine of resentment, jumping from bitter machinations to sunbeam smiles, not above punching the air even as he shrinks into the background to watch his schemes unfold.
The set design, by Vicki Mortimer, steps perfectly in time with its central duo, taking us to a Cypriot military base that’s held together by strip lights, laptops and war rooms. Concrete bunkers unfold and slide back and forth on stage, interlocking and unveiling claustrophobic chambers – setting one key scene in a bathroom is one of the most inspired decisions in a production full of inspired decisions.
What has traditionally been a play about race is allowed to become more than that; it’s a story of brotherly betrayal, with Lester’s Othello a leader primarily undermined by his own self-conscious persona, which Iago manipulates to his own vengeful ends. The result manages to make you laugh and gasp at recognised lines all over again, while keeping you gripped with a sense of propulsive momentum – and, while the always-excellent Kinnear gets the lion’s share of the speeches, it leaves you raring to see Lester in action once again.
Othello is available on National Theatre at Home as a £7.99 rental or as part of a £9.98 monthly subscription. For more on National Theatre at Home and how it works, click here.