Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses the themes of racism and domestic violence. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
Tinnitus sufferers should exercise caution when watching the National Theatre’s Othello, as a high-pitched ringing is present pre-show and throughout marks the eponymous protagonist’s crumbling psyche. Clint Dyer’s take on Shakespeare’s play makes for a dark psychological thriller, with the occasional click, or flicker of the lights hinting at the faltering mind on the edge, unsure of itself and how to feel. It’s intense, chilling and gripping, and crackles with such an electrifying, cinematic energy (with credit to Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green for truly elemental video design).
The parallels with Dyer and writer Roy Williams’ acclaimed Death of England trilogy are clear, with Terera’s bottled up emotions carrying this sense that to express them as a general or Black man is forbidden. The aforementioned whining denotes such a struggle, at one point accompanied with racist imagery to denote the prejudiced characterisation of racialised folks’ negative emotions. He doesn’t want to feel jealousy or doubtful of his love for Desdemona (a sharp and self-assured Rosy McEwen), but even if he were to, he couldn’t. It’s suffocating, as the stage outside of the surrounding staircase is tiny, and overhead lights press down on the actors below. Even at the interval, we see the safety curtain close in on our view of Othello rather than having the lights go out. Everything feels so tight, so constrained, and it’s utterly enthralling.
Not to mention that the prying eyes of the public is another stress factor for Othello. Within minutes the lights are on us and we must applaud his calm and collected display of martial arts. Shadowy figures in all-black (who, I later learn, are credited as ‘the system), sit on the steps and watch on. What’s particularly interesting is how quickly his calm, gentle demeanour combusts. It begins with measured gesticulations, and a splayed hand at his side to calm himself and others. It’s a considerable contrast to the treacherous Iago (Paul Hilton), with a chaotic fringe and a far more abrupt body language. He is utterly psychopathic, the ghostly individuals leaning in and twitching with curiosity presenting themselves as his own internalised crowd of supporters, jeering him on in his malicious, racist endeavours.
Juggling all of these individual themes and interpretations may feel like overcrowding in this production (maybe even literally, to an extent, given the ensemble), but its complexity is more the case of it being cleverly layered than uneven or underdeveloped. More about this production unravels even after the curtain comes down, and it’s reminiscent of Ola Ince’s take on Romeo and Juliet at the Globe in that – like that staging last year in stripping out the romance out of suicide – it translates the “tragedy” (using the term in the loosest possible sense) or wrong into something more profound and less problematic.
Here in Othello, fatal domestic violence stands untampered. We do not sympathise with Iago or Othello for their involvement or deeds, but rather feel anguish for Desdemona and Emilia (Tanya Franks) who in their final scenes request a respect for their individuality, free of control from the men for whom that word means everything and is the prism by which their world operates. The issue – like racism – is systemic, the system watching the proceedings unfold until the very end.
This isn’t a play which sparks sorrow or sadness like a typical “tragedy”, but rather unease, alarm and concern – a kind of investment which completely consumes its three-hour running time.
Othello is now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre until 23 January 2023. It will then be shown in cinemas from 23 February.
Captioned performances are due to take place on 14 December and 20 January, with audio described performances on 21 December and 14 January.
A relaxed performance is scheduled for 28 December, while a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance will take place on 12 January.
Production Images: Myah Jeffers.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Othello’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.