There are many versions of Othello on stage, so what is it that makes this one stand out? Primarily, because the cast is exceptional. Rosy McEwan as Desdemona is particularly commendable for her ability to plead her innocence, her disempowered tears driving home that this is a story of domestic violence. Paul Hilton as Iago skilfully delivers lines that implicate Cassio or Desdemona as if in perfect innocence, and is constantly met with audience laughter. Meanwhile, Giles Terera as Othello adroitly masters the jarring transition between blissful affection and subsequent hatred for Desdemona. Terera and Hilton play well off each other, depicting the psychological process of deception and betrayal. Then, in the early scenes where the newlyweds are made to defend their affections, McEwan and Terera’s portrayal of sweet enamourment exacerbates the bitterness of the ultimate tragedy.
Rory Fleck Byrne and Tanya Franks also shine as Cassio and Emilia, and Franks’ final outcries following Desdemona’s death are truly moving. The conversations between Desdemona and Emilia give great depth and soul to these women ultimately deprived of agency by their husbands. Franks and Hilton impressively capture the complexity of an abusive relationship; Emilia clutching at straws for her husband’s affection and Iago manipulating his power over her, both in full knowledge that she is trapped in her position. Refreshingly, the production successfully highlights the trauma of spousal abuse and patriarchal hierarchy rather positioning the women as secondary to the Othello-Iago dynamic.
The staging is minimalist with most characters outfitted in plain black, which effectively decontextualises the content from any time period and allows the themes of racism and spousal abuse to remain prominent and, unfortunately, relevant in any era. Costume is chosen very deliberately to individualise certain roles: Desdemona’s blonde locks curl like a Hollywood starlet; Emilia’s face shows bruising, implicitly at Iago’s hands; and Othello and Desdemona are made foreign in North African inspired clothing. Iago is excellently styled, with slicked-back hair to match his slimy character.
Some of the stylistic elements of the production are a little confusing. The use of an ongoing grating, metallic sound seem rather disconnected from the play. In one scene where Othello is doubting his wife, the ensemble fills the background bearing riot shields and donning masks with a black face and red lips, the message of which was unclear. The ensemble are frequently positioned to be watching the main characters’ private moments, creating a panopticon-like effect which perhaps undermines the dramatic irony essential to the story: if the public know this is all lies, why at the end is Emilia so shocked? Is this the public laughing at Othello? The intent is unclear.
Nonetheless, the production quality is incredibly smooth, with impressive use of pyrotechnics and of makeup to create whip scars across Othello’s back. Violence is certainly palpable throughout the production, featuring punching bags, knives, and nooses, that emphasise the military setting and high-stakes nature of the conflict Iago induces. When combined with such rich performances of psychological anguish, this production makes a centuries’-old tale feel vivid and captivating, fresh like a sharp cut.
The cast are met with consistent laughter and rapturous applause and the production is likely to be a hit with audiences. It certainly is a very digestible Shakespeare, and I truly felt pained by the injustice of its ending. I do still question whether elements of the ensemble and sound direction served any purpose other than generating weirdness. The overall impact of the production is, however, strong and visceral. The heart of this show is the talent of its actors to delve into the complex emotions of jealousy, resentment, and indignance, which this cast tackles masterfully.
Written by: Shakespeare
Directed by: Clint Dyer
Set Design by: Chloe Lamford
Costume Design by: Michael Vale
Lighting Design by: Jai Morjaria
Sound Design & Composition by: Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant
Othello plays at National Theatre until 21 January. Further information and bookings can be found here.