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Published Wednesday 24 April 2013 at 10:52 by Michael Coveney

Nicholas Hytner and Adrian Lester present a soldier’s tragedy in a contemporary military compound that could be anywhere - Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan - where the military is operating far from its comfort zone.

Olivia Vinall and Adrian Lester in Othello at the Olivier, National Theatre, London

Olivia Vinall and Adrian Lester in Othello at the Olivier, National Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton

The analogy is not forced, but the tension between Lester’s lithe and charismatic Othello and Rory Kinnear’s chipper, bulky Iago, an old sweat not to be messed with on a boys’ night out, is palpably developed in the aftermath of a long campaign.

Hytner’s first production as artistic director of the National ten years ago was a blistering account of Henry V with Lester as a modern leader sucked into war and trying to sound humane. Then, the war in Iraq was the reference.

Now, on the same Olivier stage, there is no mystery as to why this Iago hates the Moor. He’s been overlooked for promotion and thinks he’s been cuckolded by the general. His service is therefore tainted with personal resentment even before he confides in us.

We see the lads gathering in a Venice pub, while the senate, or war cabinet, led by Robert Demeger’s suited duke, approves the new initiative against the Turkish threat; Othello’s the man for the job, but William Chubb’s Brabantio is seething with displeasure at reports of his daughter’s dalliance with the “sooty bosom”.

This is the only part of the play where racism counts. There are other black soldiers in the company, and Lester doesn’t play the exotic, ‘different’ card in Othello’s hand. The clue here is newcomer Olivia Vinall’s startlingly pure and simple Desdemona, a slip of a girl in slacks and sneakers; she’s a doll, a sudden blast of fresh air for Othello, and he never recovers from loving her rashly until it’s too late.

It’s odd, perhaps, that in this brutish world of army fatigues, late-night drinking (the downfall of Jonathan Bailey’s likeable Cassio is done with a grisly ritual of vodka shots) and locker-room face-offs, an embroidered handkerchief should seem such a big deal. But the plotting is so precisely controlled that you are convinced of the galloping consequences.

So is Kinnear’s Iago, who is struck dumb in his tracks, mouth agape, as Lester sinks into a deep, slow melancholy as he realises his curse: that he must loath Desdemona. Seeking the ‘oracular proof,’ Lester slams Kinnear to the wall and prompts the extraordinary ‘account’ of Iago’s night in bed with a writhing, yearning Cassio.

Everything about Lester’s Othello is the opposite of the extravagant preview he gave as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet at the Tricycle last year: unostentatious, intellectually imposing but fatally gullible. He takes the rhetoric in his stride and becomes a monster with minimal fuss. It’s a brilliant performance, perfectly complemented by Kinnear’s technical mastery.

Vicki Mortimer’s design of huge moving trucks and concrete blocks conveys the dangerous anonymity of these soldiers’ quarters. And there’s a lovely Roderigo from Tom Robertson and an excellent Emilia - an impassioned conscript - from Lyndsey Marshal.

Production information

Olivier, National Theatre, April 16-August 18

William Shakespeare
Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre
Cast includes:
Adrian Lester, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Vinall, Lyndsey Marshal, Jonathan Bailey, Tom Robertson, William Chubb, Robert Demeger, Nick Sampson, Jonathan Dryden Taylor
Running time:
3hrs 20mins

Production information displayed was believed correct at time of review. Information may change over the run of the show.

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Run sheet

King's Head, Islington London
January 24-February 15 2014