Othello: fleet, potent and makes strides for diversity – but too gloomy by half

Giles Terera as Othello and Rosy McEwen as Desdemona in the NT's latest production - Myah Jeffers
Giles Terera as Othello and Rosy McEwen as Desdemona in the NT's latest production - Myah Jeffers

It doesn’t seem so very long ago, albeit it’s almost a decade now, since Nicholas Hytner delivered a robustly conceived modern Othello at the National, with both exemplary leads, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, picking up awards as a result.

That hasn’t been consigned to fading memory, thanks to the streaming service NT at Home. Even so, the National’s latest account of Shakespeare’s tragedy needs little excuse. Aside from recruiting two high-calibre actors – Giles Terera and Paul Hilton – to play the “noble Moor” and his scheming nemesis, it apparently marks the first time (sharp, appalled intake of breath) a black director has staged the play at a leading British theatre.

Clint Dyer (NT deputy AD) boldly foregrounds the play’s contentious history by placing his production at the end of an imposing line of “greats”: projected pre-show imagery shuffles year-dates and throws up posters of famous faces, some (Olivier, Hopkins) blacked-up. The insinuation is less that what we’re about to witness is ground-breaking and more that the ground upon which any black actor in the title-role treads is fraught with expectations, assumptions and complications.

That cultural pressure is accentuated by a coldly lit, stark, monochrome mise-en-scène (designer, Chloe Lamford), which is dominated by a cascade of tiered steps. Down these and into the gladiatorial ring, as it were, Terera’s Othello hurtles at the start, enacting a solo frenzy of martial valour. As if responding to a dog-whistle, the watching ensemble shift from waggy approval at that heroism to growling threateningly at him.

This white-dominated mob becomes a stylised motif of systemic power, assuming shades of a torch-wielding witch-hunt early in Venice, voyeuristically lurking in the shadows in Cyprus, and shifting in eerie synchronicity too with Hilton’s leering puppet-master, an angular figure who barely conceals his daggered looks.

Giles Terera gives a muscularity and measured intelligence to Othello while Paul Hilton is devilishly hypnotic as Iago - CEF PHOTOGRAPHY
Giles Terera gives a muscularity and measured intelligence to Othello while Paul Hilton is devilishly hypnotic as Iago - CEF PHOTOGRAPHY

Where Hilton is devilishly hypnotic, Terera gives us muscularity and measured intelligence – he’s no fool, rather drawn towards paranoid disintegration by following Iago’s logic of jealousy-arousing “proofs”. Both men, however, engage in shockingly public acts of assault towards their dutiful women-folk – Tanya Franks’s nervously giggling Emilia, and Rosy McEwen’s ravishing, fatally self-possessed Desdemona, who doesn’t compute what’s afoot until it’s too late.

Why, then, award it only three stars? Well, to be frank, McEwen isn’t the only one in the cast whose verse-speaking can sound too flat. And, for all its over-arching ingenuity, I found the ambience too remorselessly gloomy and divorced from tangible social context. Yes, it’s a fleet, clear, potent three-hour affair that makes welcome strides for diversity, but it stumbles in some areas, and the festive scheduling (aside from ticket prices that have you mourning the Travelex era) feels like a misstep too.

Until Jan 21. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk