The National Theatre’s Othello ends today. I had the privilege of taking a group of my A level English Literature students down to London to see it on Wednesday. Their verdict was overwhelmingly positive and I hope to share some of their reviews shortly.
I’m still mulling. It was unlike any production of Othello I’ve ever seen, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s visually striking and the opening sequence, in which we see Giles Terera’s warrior Othello raised up only to be vilified and brought down, was effective in highlighting the brutal masculinity and racism in the play.
One of my students commented that it should have been called ‘Iago’ and this production certainly places the manipulative antagonist centre stage. Paul Hilton is a wiry, unsettling Iago but for me, he never quite connected with the audience, despite all that soliloquising. The decision to place a group of actors around him (part chorus - part split inner-psyche) distracted from the text.
Having reflected since seeing the play, I suppose my main gripe is that I simply didn’t believe in Othello and Desdemona’s connection. It lacked the passion and intensity which an audience must surely buy into to underline the tragic ending. I just didn’t care: that’s what it boils down to. A shame because the violence, when it comes, is both menacing and shocking.
Iago’s much-abused wife Emilia, played by Tanya Franks, is the character who has most stayed with me. Her decision to pass Desdemona’s handkerchief to her husband finally made sense in the context of her toxic marriage: a crippling desire to please her abuser. It made her delivery of the feminist speech in Act 4 (“Then let them use us well: else let them know/The ills we do, their ills instruct us so”) all the more powerful.
I love teaching Othello. It’s such a complex and layered play. The enthusiastic conversations with my students in the interval and on the tube afterwards were the highlight of my day. I look forward to sharing their thoughts. It’s playing in cinemas as part of National Theatre Live from 23rd February. Why not see it and make your own mind up?
Othello, directed by Clint Dyer, played at the National Theatre from 23rd November 2022 to 21st January 2023.
See @NTLive for details of cinema screenings.