Othello – June 2013

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 16th June 2013

This was a fantastic performance. The modern setting enriched the detailed characterisations while the set gave us the necessary locations without being too elaborate. We had one understudy on stage today: Robert Demeger was indisposed so Jonathan Dryden Taylor took his place as the Duke.

The opening set was the wide front of a building, two storeys tall. On the left were double doors flanked by tall windows which were repeated on the floor above. To the right, a V-shaped projection turned out to be the front door of another house, set at an angle to the rest of the wall. When the lights went down, a heavy beat of music started up, and when we could see again the entrance on the left had acquired a pub sign, an all-day menu and several customers. Iago and Roderigo spilled out of the doors carrying a pint apiece and began their conversation.  Rory Kinnear used a generic working-class accent to indicate that Iago was a man who had worked his way up through the ranks, while Roderigo (Tom Robertson) was noticeably posher. The dialogue was crisp and clear, and the characters began to emerge immediately.

Roderigo was smoking, and Iago cadged a fag off him during their talk. The drinks and Roderigo’s evident tipsiness added to the fun; when Iago said “were I the Moor I would not be Iago”, he looked meaningfully at Roderigo who couldn’t understand him. That got the first laugh of the afternoon, a minor ripple but it woke us up to the production’s intention to release the humour of the play as well as the drama.

There was a short break between the pair leaving the pub and arriving at Brabantio’s house; this was covered by darkness and more of the music. After much banging on his door and shouting, Brabantio (William Chubb) stuck his head out of an upper window in the projection, and while Iago hid behind the corner of the wall, Roderigo stood centre stage to shout his lines to Desdemona’s father. For once, this amount of shouting was absolutely fine. When Brabantio emerged from his house, Iago was already off to Othello to warn him. Brabantio’s disjointed talk conveyed his emotions clearly, and despite his possessive attitude towards his daughter I found myself sympathising with the man’s distress, not an easy achievement when his vicious racism was also evident.

Iago and Othello (Adrian Lester) emerged from the left hand doors, now cleared of any pub paraphernalia, with Othello still doing up his shirt and putting on his jacket. I was aware of Iago’s pretence to lack the necessary killing instinct, else Roderigo would already be dead. I also picked up on Othello’s comment that but for his love for Desdemona he would not have his “unhoused free condition put into circumscription and confine”, an early hint that he may not be the best husband material.

Cassio and an officer arrived, and I noticed that the officer was also played by a black actor. In fact there were three other black actors in the cast today, which I wouldn’t normally comment on, but given the nature of this play it was an interesting choice. Given the modern setting, this suggested that Othello wasn’t some isolated foreigner with a different skin colour; a foreigner yes, but in a city state which was more integrated and used to such differences, even if some of the natives were of a racist disposition.

Cassio’s questioning of Iago about the marriage was something of a puzzle. Admittedly we only learn later that he acted as go-between for Othello and Desdemona, but if he was so trusted wouldn’t he have known all about the wedding? It’s a minor point, and didn’t spoil my enjoyment; more of a query for the author should he ever turn up to a Q&A (I won’t hold my breath). Brabantio’s followers were casually dressed but ready to rumble, and it was only Othello’s authority that prevented a trip to A&E for some of those on stage.

As this group left the stage to more of the music, half of the wall rose up and an inner room was revealed on the right with a large conference table, lots of chairs and a smaller table at the back with coffee, etc. It slid forward at an angle so that everyone could get a good view of the scene. The men (and one woman) in suits had clearly been there for some time; jackets were off and there were signs of caffeine intake. Again the dialogue was very clear, and I liked the way one of the messengers handed out sheets of paper containing the information he was reporting. The new arrivals had to squeeze in past the table and Brabantio took a seat at the front of the platform, great for seeing his reactions to the unfolding events.

There was laughter when the Duke promised Brabantio that he would have whatever retribution he desired against the man who stole his daughter; knowing their need for Othello’s skills, it was a hollow promise. Othello’s claim to be useless at public speaking reminded me of that other reluctant wooer, Henry V; both men profess no great ability with their tongues and then go on to speak very eloquently – another point for the Q&A. The whole room reacted to Brabantio’s line “to fall in love with what she feared to look on!”, indicating that such sentiments regarding immigrants were not generally held, or perhaps not usually spoken aloud.

Othello had been standing at the far end of the table for the start of his explanation, but after sending for Desdemona he sat down, making it hard to see his face as he went into the details of their unusual courtship. When Desdemona arrived, she was quick to go to her father, who was just as quick to shrug her off when she confessed to the marriage. She kept trying to console him, but he wasn’t having any of it. Othello was standing behind him at this point, and although they shook hands when he ‘gave’ Desdemona to Othello, his unhappiness at the match was painfully clear.

This part of the scene ended with “My life upon her faith”, and then the room was taken back and the wall restored for phase two. Iago came out of the left doors first and spoke (no dialogue) with Roderigo, presumably telling him to come back later because he disappeared off stage just before Desdemona and Othello came out. The last part of the scene was played out here, with Othello giving Iago instructions for the trip before heading off with Desdemona for a final hour of fun before the journey. Roderigo reappeared and entertained us with his weeping and snivelling. Several of the “put money in your purse” bits were cut, although Iago was still pretty insistent on the point overall, and there were some laughs in the delivery of lines such as “Drown cats. And blind puppies.” – the punctuation is my own. With Roderigo re-motivated, Iago was left alone to plot his revenge on Othello, and we could see the plan take shape right in that moment.

Off to Cyprus now, and the new set was brilliant. The wall rose up, and with lots of soldiers running around and various loud noises, we were immediately in a theatre of war. The buildings were concrete prefabs with strange boxes on the walls – these turned out to be lights. To the right, we could see the front of one building, while the concrete block on the left had its back to us. One or two other walls were visible in the distance and occasionally came forward to set up a particular location, while around the perimeter were some tall lamp posts just appearing above the buildings. A mesh gate appeared between the two forward buildings after everything from the ships was safely stowed, and that was it to begin with.

The dialogue wasn’t as clear for this scene, but given the storm and the military situation, that wasn’t surprising. We got the gist, and things soon calmed down. When the second ship arrived, Desdemona came on with the other soldiers and was the only one in civvies. Even Emilia was in uniform. This sense of Desdemona being the odd one out made a huge difference, especially when Othello himself arrived and went to greet her before acknowledging Montano and the other Cypriot officers. The newlyweds’ long hug and kisses had the rest of the soldiers looking away with embarrassment, and made me think of Anthony and his relationship with Cleopatra; too much loving and not enough soldiering. On “Come, let us to the castle”, Othello was about to leave the stage to enjoy Desdemona’s company, but he recovered his manners in time and became the formal commander again. He pulled himself together and announced “News, friends….”, before greeting his old friends warmly. Desdemona followed behind him and shook their hands.

Incidentally, the sparring between Desdemona and Iago was largely cut – they went from “You rise to play and go to bed to work” to “These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i’th’alehouse” and then jumped to somewhere in the region of “Do not learn from him Emilia”. When the rest of the cast went to the back of the stage to look for Othello’s arrival, Iago stayed near the front and commented on Cassio’s ‘courtesy’ with Desdemona. We could see what passed between them, and Iago’s lines caused some amusement, especially his mocking impersonation of “You say true, ‘tis so indeed”.

Roderigo was also in civvies, although he did have a helmet and military waistcoat. During his conversation with Iago, I noticed that Roderigo wasn’t convinced by the palm-paddling evidence; he recognised it for what it was and shrugged it off. At some point a soldier came across the stage with a clipboard and presented it to Iago for his signature, a nice reminder of his role in this military organisation. On this occasion, and on others, a word such as “Ensign” or “soldier” was added to the dialogue; perfectly acceptable in my view. Iago’s soliloquy after Roderigo’s departure was well delivered, and for once I caught the hint of Iago’s fear that Cassio might also sleep with Emilia.

No herald in this production, so Othello and Desdemona were swiftly on and off again, and the conversation between Iago and Cassio was another enjoyable bit of humour, as Cassio kept turning Iago’s crude comments on Desdemona into more refined compliments. The other soldiers had already gone into the right hand building, and after Iago’s brief chat with us, that room was opened up to our view. It was clearly an officer’s mess, with chairs, crates of beer in cans, a table and a couple of lockers at the back. The room slid forward again, so there was no difficulty seeing what went on. Iago pretended to do a blind man’s buff to determine who should drink a can of beer, and of course he picked Cassio. The second song was replaced with a drinking competition between Cassio and Montano, with shots of vodka replacing the beer, so Cassio was supremely drunk when he stood there and made his strange comments about being saved. When he said “This is my left hand” he was holding out his right hand – laughter – and he corrected himself by saying “this is my right hand” – more laughter. He collapsed a couple of times while trying to leave the room, and the soldiers, having been solemn-faced when he was in the room, burst out laughing as soon as he was out of the door.

When there was only Iago and Montano in the room, Roderigo and Cassio burst in followed by some of the other soldiers. Cassio was trying to get at Roderigo and Montano stopped him, which led to Cassio attacking him, and soon there was a drunken brawl going on with fists flying everywhere. Othello’s arrival stopped all the fighters except Cassio and Montano; Othello himself pried them apart. Some dialogue was cut, and while Montano sat on one of the chairs holding a napkin to his bloody head, Cassio stood looking embarrassed on the right and Iago stood to attention in the middle of the room. The audience appreciated the deviousness of “than it should do offence to Michael Cassio”, and Othello was easily led into firing the man.

Once alone, Cassio held his chest as if in great pain, and his anguished howls of “reputation” were another funny moment. Iago’s advice was good, and he even made Cassio some coffee as well. When Roderigo turned up, I noticed he wasn’t much hurt by his encounter with Cassio, though by his whining you would have expected him to be black and blue.

There were no musicians in this version, and the next short scene was played out in the open air, with the mess hall on the right being replaced within its box. The location for the following scene was changed to the left hand building. As the mess hall was replaced, the building on the left was opened up and two platforms slid forward, one further forward than the other. There was an extension on the front platform which was lowered down to give a squared-off end to the room, which was Othello’s office. There were two doors, one at the back of each platform, and two desks, with Othello’s desk being to the back of the room and Iago’s at the front. The back wall had maps on it, there was a printer and a small fridge on the office furniture against the back wall, and there were computers on each desk. The inside décor for all of these rooms suggested plasterboard sections with strips between, and gave a perfect sense of the temporary nature of these buildings.

Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) met with Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) and promised to help him, and both he and Desdemona scurried out of the first door when Iago and Othello came into the office by the door at the back. Iago sat at the front desk while Othello sat at the other one, reading some papers. Desdemona came back in to plead for Cassio with Othello, and I heard her comment about Cassio “that came a-wooing with you”. Iago noticed it as well. Emilia (Lyndsey Marshal) had also entered, and stayed by the first door waiting for Desdemona. The love between Othello and his wife was clear to see, expressed in touch and looks, and set us up for the drastic change that was to come.

Iago waited a little while before asking the question about Cassio, and soon had Othello hooked into his scheme. His repetition of Othello’s words was funny even before Othello commented on it and I noticed that, despite his contempt for “reputation” earlier, he made a much better job of expounding the importance of “reputation” than Cassio did. Othello had actually left the room after Iago’s consistent refusal to explain his comments, but was close enough to hear “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy” – a neat trick on Iago’s part. Iago was sitting at his desk at this point, but stood up to continue his manipulative speech. Othello was all soldierly, convinced that he could deal with any doubts as easily as he could marshal his troops on the parade ground – doubt, evidence, certainty – poor lamb. Iago went in for the kill, sitting on Othello’s desk as he rammed home his warnings to the seated general: “Look to your wife. Observe her well with Cassio.” etc.

Othello was getting very hot and bothered at Iago’s words, despite trying to appear cheerful. He didn’t react to Iago’s comments about Desdemona marrying outside “her own clime, complexion, and degree”, suggesting that he was already thinking along these lines himself, as his own words “And yet how nature, erring from itself” would imply. Iago left when instructed, but returned shortly afterwards, indicating the folder on the desk as the reason for his return. He picked it up, and then made to leave before starting up his mischievous meddling again. When he did go, Othello was in torment, convinced that Desdemona was unfaithful. It wasn’t till he spoke the lines “or for I am declined into the vale of years” that I realised he was considerably older than Desdemona; even with some slight greying of his hair, Adrian Lester looked much more youthful than any other Othello I’ve seen. After that, I was more aware of the discrepancy in their ages, but even so there was less emphasis on that aspect in this production.

Desdemona’s return gave us our first chance to see the change in Othello’s attitude, as well as setting up the handkerchief device. Emilia did her best to keep it from Iago but he chased her across the office to get it, and soon took it from her. After ordering her to leave, he celebrated getting the hanky with some air punches, clearly triumphant.

When Othello returned, he was suffering even more than before, and soon turned his anger on Iago. He chased him round the office, even jumping over the desk to try and catch him. Soon the chair was thrown to one side and later the desk was tipped over; the place was a total mess. Iago’s description of Cassio’s sleep-talk was very funny, for the audience, but didn’t calm Othello down at all. Iago introduced the hanky as well, and Othello was completely gone; that was when he threw the desk over. He drew his hands together around his heart and threw them forward on ”All my fond love thus I do blow to heaven – ‘tis gone”. They knelt together for the oath, and when the scene finished on “I am your own for ever”, they took the interval.

They cut the clown, so the second half stared back in the compound with some soldiers playing football. Desdemona and Emilia wandered on and Desdemona joined in the game; being the general’s missus the soldiers obligingly let her score a goal before heading off with their ball. This left Desdemona free to enquire “where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?”, a change from the usual staging of having her search for it as she asks the question. The argument with Othello and arrival of Cassio all went fine, and when Desdemona and Emilia left Cassio alone, the guards at the gate allowed Bianca to slip in to visit him.

The next scene between Iago and Othello took place in the gents’ washrooms on the left. Again the two platforms slid forward, but the extension had been removed in the interval so the floor at the back was longer than the floor at the front. The sinks were along the back and two cubicles stood on the left of the front platform with a mop and bucket tucked in beside them. Othello threw up in the second of the cubicles during the first part of the conversation, not long before collapsing on the floor at the usual point. His disjointed dialogue made it clear he was going through some kind of breakdown.

Iago got a glass of water for Othello after he threw up, and was still holding it when Othello fell on the floor. He stood for a few moments, then casually took a drink out of the glass – we laughed. He then dipped his fingers in the glass and sprinkled a few drops of water on Othello, which was also funny. Cassio made his brief appearance, and then Othello woke up and was persuaded to hide in the first cubicle to overhear Cassio’s ‘confession’ of his affair with Desdemona.  Once he was safely hidden, Iago again punched the air in celebration of his success in fooling Othello and setting up the perfect trick to convince him of Cassio’s guilt. He told us quite frankly that he would use Cassio’s relationship with Bianca to seal the deal, and took the ex-lieutenant over to the sinks to carry out this plan. Meanwhile Othello opened the cubicle door to see what was going on, which also allowed us to see him, of course.

Cassio’s description of Bianca was entertaining enough, but then the woman herself burst into the gents – no shame – and her anger at the implausibility of Cassio just ‘finding’ the hanky in his ‘closet’ added to the evidence for adultery. Even so, her love for Cassio was too strong for her, and she still invited him round to her place for supper as she left. Iago had the hanky at this point, and played with it a bit before handing it back to Cassio as he left the room.

Iago kept pushing Othello to the dark side after this; each sign of remorse and forgiveness was quickly eradicated by a tart comment, such as “if it touch not you, it comes near nobody.” He also prompted the idea of strangling Desdemona, presumably to make Othello’s crime more obvious. Instead of a trumpet, the sound of a helicopter signalled the arrival of Lodovico, and this led to the gents being pulled back and the wall replaced.

Othello, Iago and Desdemona met the new arrivals, Lodovico and Gratiano, in the courtyard area, with Othello standing to one side to read the letter. This was where the excessive physical contact between Othello and Desdemona earlier paid off – the sight of him hitting her and knocking her to the ground was truly shocking. She was helped off stage the first time Othello sent her away, but returned when he called her. Othello’s actions were dreadful, although we could understand where they came from; this was the first time his delusional jealousy was exposed in public. Iago kept well out of the firing line, but stayed behind to prime Lodovico about Othello’s drastic change of behaviour.

For the next scene, the room on the right was extended forwards and turned out to be Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom. The double bed was at the front, head on to us, there was a wardrobe back left and the door was centre back. Apart from a light switch beside the door, there didn’t seem to be much else in the room from where we sat (front left of the stalls). As the scene began, Othello was searching the room, throwing clothes out of a bag, tossing the sheets to one side, even smelling the pillows as if some fragrance of adultery would still linger there. Emilia was also in the room being interrogated by Othello and doing her best to defend Desdemona. When the lady herself turned up, she had no better luck than Emilia – Othello was too far gone.

Iago spoke with the women in the bedroom, but I think his conversation with Roderigo happened back in the courtyard, with the bedroom being withdrawn and shut off for the time being. Iago was dismissive of Roderigo to begin with, but the threat of the young man going to Desdemona directly meant that Iago had to take notice of him. His manipulation was masterly, and he soon had Roderigo involved in yet another plot, this time to kill Cassio.

As Othello and Lodovico took their late night stroll, Othello sent Desdemona off to bed immediately, but she sat outside the bedroom for a few minutes first. Emilia sat beside her, drinking some beer, and joined in the ‘Willow’ song suggesting it was a well-known tune; afterwards she fetched another can of beer for Desdemona. No undressing and getting ready for bed in this production; the two ladies had their chat – Emilia was very persuasive on the potential benefits of adultery – and then went into the bedroom.

The walls were adjusted for the next scene, with the ones on the sides of the buildings coming forward to create more nooks and crannies. Iago left Roderigo hiding by the wall on the left of the stage, and exited on the right after giving us the details of his cunning plan. Cassio came through the middle section and Roderigo shot him, catching him in the leg so that Cassio fell by the right hand wall. He shot back, injuring Roderigo, who was still by the left hand wall. No Othello watching the scene from above; we went straight to Lodovico and Gratiano’s arrival and the discovery of Cassio. Iago emerged through the middle section a bit later, holding a torch and gun in the approved military manner, and took the first opportunity to shoot Roderigo dead.

Back in the bedroom, Othello began his speech by candlelight. His emotions were beautifully expressed throughout this scene, with all the changes in tone and thought coming across clearly. I’ve often found this section to be ‘the boring bit’ in previous productions, but not today; this was absolutely riveting. Desdemona woke, and despite her pleas Othello kept to his intention and smothered her with a pillow. She stopped fighting just as Emilia knocked on the door, but she stirred again after Othello removed the pillow, so he strangled her with his bare hands. It was almost funny the way he tried to hide the dead body by covering it with the duvet, but it did him no good in the end.

He switched the main light on when he went to the door to talk with Emilia, keeping her from seeing what was inside, but she came in once Desdemona cried out and the murder was discovered. Emilia’s repetition of “husband” was funny, though not to laugh at in the circumstances, and it echoed Iago’s similar verbal pattern earlier. She stood up to Othello strongly, and he was clearly not at his best; having failed to kill Desdemona twice, he also failed to make any impression on Emilia.

When the other Venetians piled into the room, Iago was naturally concerned to shut his wife up, but she would talk! Once the crucial revelation about the handkerchief was out, Iago stabbed her and ran off. She lay bleeding beside the bed and Othello was left weaponless in the room, guarded by Gratiano who had been given Othello’s gun. He wasn’t used to guns, however, so when Othello called him back into the room, having taken a sword out of the wardrobe, Gratiano was understandably nervous. This was one way to make a sword versus gun contest seem believable.

As it happens, Othello soon had his sword removed as well, after cutting Iago on the leg. For his final speech, he drew himself up into a military pose, hands behind his back, and started out with “I have done the state some service, and they know’t” before realising that this approach wasn’t right; no good relying on his military service when he’d committed such a horrendous act as killing Desdemona based on Iago’s false accusations. He drew a knife from behind his back to stab himself – presumably he had one tucked away there for emergencies – and there was some nobility to his final words.

Othello collapsed, kneeling beside the bed with his head lying on Desdemona. He had already put Emilia on the other side, so the three bodies were laid out for the closing lines. No “Let it be hid”, as there were no curtains to draw, and after Lodovico and Gratiano had left, Iago pulled away from the accompanying soldiers and stood at the foot of the bed, taking a long look at the results of his handiwork, presumably with satisfaction. As the soldiers grabbed him and took him away, the lights went out and we broke into rapturous applause, with plenty of people on their feet as the cast took their bows.

It was right and proper that Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear took their bows together, as the two parts are equally important in terms of the play, but Rory stole the show for us today. The detail of his performance, the excellent use of humour and the clarity of the plotting and scheming were superb. This production just pips the Crucible version we saw in 2011, and with the next booking period opening shortly we intend to make a second visit.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “Othello – June 2013

  1. Peter Serres says:

    Roderigo comedy began with his first appearance, wearing ridiculous plummy pink Chinos. Maybe my suppressed snort of derision was not universally shared but, within the year, Marks & Spencer had an entire “SALE” rack of Roderigo pants. To you, sir – £15.00. Pants indeed. I rest my case. Memory (possibly faulty) says that Roger Rees, on his arrival in Cyprus, dressed as the sloppiest private ever, stood relatively un-noticed by the audience, absolutely Hangdog from his head to his heels. As the pathetic platoon began to slope off, there was a merry laugh when Iago pulled him out of the line for their scene together.

  2. Sounds like the designer did a good job! (Though I hope the RSC didn’t pay too much for the pink chinos.) I assume the Roger Rees production was a good many years ago???

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