Othello Review – Clint Dyer makes this tragedy feel brand new

In 1964, the National Theater Company staged Othello with Laurence Olivier playing the military commander in blackface. Clint Dyer’s new production speaks to the murky history of the play’s performance in its opening optics, perhaps even to the ghost of Olivier’s Othello itself. There are posters of old productions projected on Chloe Lamford’s contemporary set and a cleaner scrubs the floor. It establishes a conceptual revision: a kind of cleaning.

But we are baffled in the sense that, for most of its three hours, this Othello plays like a traditional thriller that veers at times into melodrama. A new vision comes though, breathtakingly, in a radical half-hour at the end, when it seems Dyer is revealing another play beneath the story we know about jealousy and distrust in which Othello is a flawed hero who commands our lives. sympathies. This other comedy is about the tragedy of domestic violence. Women are not victimized here as men, including Othello, control and abuse toxic substances. It’s an almost obvious interpretation, once we’ve seen and heard it, yet it makes the work feel completely new.

Never has the speech about wives and husbands (“If wives fall”), delivered by Desdemona’s maid, Emilia (Tanya Franks), made more sense. She is the play’s other battered woman along with Desdemona, who visibly trembles in the company of her abusive husband, Iago, and wears a bloody bruise over her eye. Franks steals the show with the scene and becomes the hero of this production.

Rosy McEwen is also quietly radical in her role as Desdemona, never smiling or scared. She appears as Othello’s equal, despite her paucity of witticisms, and although she and Giles Terera’s Othello have no passionate chemistry, there is tenderness and mutual respect between them, until he addresses her.

Terera, for her part, appears a contemporary figure as she bears the legacy of slavery on her body (a mosaic of lacerations on her back). We watch him unravel but feel contempt when he claims he loved his wife “too well” after he killed her.

Paul Hilton’s Iago, meanwhile, is the most thumping character on stage. The opposite of Mark Rylance’s cerebral and seemingly unassuming Iago, Hilton has an over-the-top comedic villain and appears as a cross between a Marvel-style Joker figure and a pantomime villain who may have mistakenly walked out of the adjoining show’s set. theater, Hex .

The production doesn’t seem quite united in its vision, veering from what resembles Greek tragedy (there’s a chorus of mimes) to modern melodrama. Thriller tropes are effective but over the top, with thunder, rain, jagged sounds, drums, glowing embers on a back screen, sudden spotlights and swirling darkness. The chorus seems to represent inner demons; they bring disturbing, but also mystifying scenes like the one in which they emerge in masks, holding police shields.

It remains highly watchable and well paced with good supporting performances from Rory Fleck Byrne as the earnest Cassio and Jack Bardoe as Roderigo. This is an Othello that looks unlike any other, the central figure of him a villain, not a hero—a cleansing of the work, indeed.

  • At the National’s Lyttelton Theater in London until 21 January. In cinemas across the UK from 23rd February and worldwide on 27th April via NT Live.

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