Monday, June 24, 2013

Tragic Heroes: Othello and Hamlet

A scene from Nicholas Hytner’s Othello, (Photo: John Persson)

Starring Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, Nicholas Hytner’s brilliant new Othello – his swan song as artistic director of the National Theatre – is set in a contemporary Middle East war zone. Shakespeare wrote the Moor as a general in the Venetian army who brings his bride, Desdemona, to Cyprus during wartime, but he routs the Turks at the top of the second act and we barely hear another word about the conflict. (He remains in Cyprus with his troops to maintain the peace.) It’s significant that Othello is a triumphant warrior; it explains the respect he has been accorded by the Venetian senate in spite of his race. And his friendships with Iago and Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) derive from their shared careers: Iago is Othello’s ensign, Cassio his newly appointed lieutenant – an appointment that rankles with Iago, who thinks he should have been awarded the post. In Hytner’s version we’re reminded constantly that we’re on a military outpost. Once we leave Venice, Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set stays firmly within the barracks, with its concrete walls, its chain-link fence, its ugly, utilitarian, sparsely furnished offices and bedrooms, shifting from one locale to the next with militaristic precision. (She manages the remarkable feat of making the immense stage of the Olivier Theatre feel claustrophobic.)

This is a twenty-first-century army: it’s racially and gender-integrated – Iago’s wife Emilia (Lindsey Marshal) is one of two women in Othello’s unit. (Instead of being lady-in-waiting to Desdemona, played by Olivia Vinall, she’s been assigned by Othello to tend to his wife’s needs.) That decision takes race out of the equation, so the characters who disparage Othello on account of the color of his skin stand out, and their behavior is really motivated by other factors. Roderigo (Tom Robertson) is in love with Desdemona; his hatred of the Moor for winning her provokes him to use racial epithets in his scenes with Iago, who, encouraging him – he’s using Roderigo as a pawn for his own revenge against Othello – does the same. (Roderigo shows up in Cyprus with a name tag; since Iago has urged him to “follow these wars,” I assume we’re supposed to think he’s a journalist embedded with the troops, but Roderigo is such a credulous dolt that this profession doesn’t seem right for him.) More strikingly, Brabantio (William Chubb), Desdemona’s senator father, voices his shock and dismay that his daughter could have run off with a black man, embracing “what she most feared to look on,” but the Duke (Jonathan Dryden Taylor, whom I saw in place of Robert Demeger) and the other senators are embarrassed by his language. Chubb’s moving performance – he’s the best Brabantio I’ve ever seen – and Othello’s reference to their past friendship make it clear that he’s so deeply hurt by his daughter’s elopement that he falls back on old prejudices he may not even have known were in his consciousness. In this way he’s like Jean Gabin’s Maréchal in Renoir’s Grand Illusion when, fatigued and depressed after his escape from the German POW camp, he and his comrade Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) take out their frustrations on each other and Maréchal makes a derogatory allusion to Rosenthal’s being Jewish.

Every actor who plays Iago has to decide for himself what provokes his scheme to destroy Othello. Playing opposite Laurence Olivier in the first National Theatre Othello, which Stuart Burge filmed in 1965, Frank Finlay grounded his Iago’s hatred of the general unmistakably in his race. When the African American actor André Braugher played the part at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in D.C. in the early nineties, the fact that he and Othello (Avery Brooks) were both men of color gave an unusual edge to his sense of betrayal at Othello’s having chosen a white man (Graham Winton) as lieutenant over him. But Braugher played Iago as motivated less by personal animosity than by a detached – sociopathic – fascination with his own ability to ensnare Othello, Desdemona and Cassio in his trap. In the 1995 Oliver Parker movie of the play, starring Laurence Fishburne in the title role, it’s purely Cassio’s promotion that sets on Kenneth Branagh’s Iago. Rory Kinnear uses the same motivation for his Iago, but the emphasis on the army setting heightens our sense of the importance of the promotion that he’s been passed over for. It also provides a plausible context for this particular villain. Kinnear (who is superb) plays Iago as blunt, unadorned and quintessentially working-class – he uses a rough-and-tumble Cockney accent – who has risen in the ranks as a result of skillful soldiering and a convincing presentation of himself as honest and loyal, a man so famous for saying just what he thinks that when he tries to hide or soften the truth his friends can see through him. So when he hesitates to identify Cassio as the drunken brawler who wounded Montano (Chook Sibtain), the governor of Cyprus, Othello assumes he is covering up clumsily for his friend, and when he is uncomfortable about Cassio’s and Desdemona’s behavior around each other, Othello has to pull his suspicions out of him like teeth. Othello, like Cassio and Roderigo, never suspects that Iago’s transparency is an expertly calibrated feat; we know it, of course, but only because we hear him in soliloquy, when his bluntness turns into the bitterness of a chronic malcontent backed by the force of a man who enjoys violence. These curdled soliloquies are frightening.

Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Adrian Lester as Othello in Nicholas Hytner's Othello.  (Photo: John Persson)

Lester has a magnificent presence and a commanding calm from his first entrance, and he’s so elegant, his short black hair fringed with gray, that we understand why Desdemona fell in love with him even before he narrates the story of their courtship for the Duke and the senators. His transition from a man of reason whose impulse is always to restrain violence rather than indulge it to an avenger who has thrown reason to the winds is absolutely convincing. Like Avery Brooks when he played the role, Lester’s Othello initially turns his anger against Iago, leaping over his desk to get at his ensign and slamming him up against a wall as he warns him that he’d better “prove my love a whore.” In this production, though, it takes an extra beat for the horror of Iago’s destruction of the Moor and his bride to take full emotional hold. That may be because Vinall doesn’t make a strong enough impression in the first half. Her physicality is too adolescent; her playfulness when she insists that her husband effect a reconciliation with Cassio is more like that of a daughter with a father she knows can’t refuse her smallest request. For this tragedy – which I think is Shakespeare’s most terrifying – to devastate us we need to fall in love with both halves of this couple. By the second half I had: Vinall is heartbreaking in the scenes where Othello turns on her, and throughout his condemnation of her, Lester’s Othello keeps us conscious of the divide in his feelings toward her – that he is killing the thing he loves most in the world.

In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo scheme outside a pub over pints and cigarettes, and the scene in which Iago urges Cassio to drink – knowing, as Cassio himself knows, that he has a problem with alcohol, that it inevitabily turns him belligerent and paranoid – takes place in a soldiers’ club. We can see that once Iago tempts him into this environment, Cassio has no choice but to get caught up in the drinking games; to abstain would be a blot on his manhood. Bailey plays Cassio as earnest, callow and completely likable. He carries his heart on his sleeve, so when he disgraces himself in the drunken fight and Othello has to demote him, we feel his shame as he hangs around the barracks, avoiding the eyes of his comrades. When Emilia gives him the audience he has begged for with Desdemona – who he hopes will put in a good word for him with the general (Iago’s idea, of course, part of his scheme to frame them as adulterers) – her assent comes out of her fellow feeling for another soldier. And the contemporary setting permits Desdemona and Cassio, who acted as Othello’s intermediary when he was courting her, to have a male-female friendship that no one would think twice about in this day and age if Iago didn’t poison his general’s mind. When Iago comments in an aside on the way their palms touch, seizing on it as a benign detail he can take advantage of, they’re giving each other a high-five.

It was an inspired choice to put a uniform on Emilia: a woman in the armed forces would have to be as tough as she is. And while Othello's harsh treatment of Desdemona after Iago turns him against her is shocking, to her as well as to the visitors from Venice who witness it – including her own uncle, Lodovico (Nick Sampson) – because he has always treated her with adoring gentleness, we're not surprised at Iago's brutality to Emilia in the final scene. It's not hard to imagine what it would be like to be married to him. Yet she's in thrall to him. She pockets the handkerchief Desdemona has dropped, her first gift from her husband, because Iago has asked her to get it for him; she wants to please him, but she feels it’s wrong, and her discomfort hangs over her subsequent scenes with both of them. When she arrives in Othello’s bedchamber just in time to hear Desdemona’s dying gasps and he proclaims to her that it was Iago who provided the evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity, Emilia’s devotion to the murdered innocent and her sense of justice drive her to condemn both these men, the villain and the dupe, even though it costs her her life. In this production, when she calls Othello Desdemona’s “most filthy bargain,” her bravado is intensified by our awareness that she’s a private who’s using these words on her general. Marshal’s fine performance takes full advantage of these layers Hytner’s concept has added to her character.

Even small choices, like placing the scene where Othello eavesdrops on Iago’s conversation with Cassio about the handkerchief in a barracks lavatory, seem enormously clever – not only because his altered perception of his wife makes Othello literally sick to his stomach but also because it’s another setting that underscores the men’s-club nature of this environment, which permits men to behave like brutes and an innocent woman to be slandered with scandalous ease. Hytner’s only mistake is his clumsy staging of the post-murder scene, which also goes long enough to become anticliimactic. (Directors should cut this scene in half as a matter of course.) But this is an Othello of tremendous power and intelligence.

Jonathan Slinger's "antic disposition" in David Farr's Hamlet (Photo: Alastair Muir)

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a Royal Shakespeare Company director trying to mount a new Hamlet. There’s one every couple of years in Stratford-on-Avon, in addition to the Hamlets at the Globe and the National; the pressure to come up with an original take must be fierce. The latest RSC edition, staged by David Farr, features Jonathan Slinger as a scholarly grad-student prince (though somewhat superannuated: Slinger looks about forty) with a sardonic frat-boy side. I’d estimate that Slinger makes perhaps sixty per cent of the role work, which isn’t bad. There’s far too much “antic disposition” in the performance, and you get tired of his mocking tone, which kills the nunnery scene with Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) as well as the “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. He’s also too weepy; Hamlet’s grief over his father is conveyed more effectively through less obvious means, and “To be or not to be” stops dead when he starts to cry on “To die, to sleep.” The other soliloquies are much better, and he’s splendid in his scenes with Horatio (Alex Waldmann) and especially Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant). (Hamlet and R & G are bonded by tattoos on their forearms, and in their reunion scene they share a joint.) Slinger is a witty, inventive actor and even when his performance doesn’t work you admire his attempt to attack the character fresh.

Farr has some good ideas and some truly terrible ones, like introducing the courtiers in fencing masks engaged in some kind of partner-less waltz and leaving Ophelia’s body uncovered downstage through the last half hour of the show. The fact that she’s buried without a coffin gives Laertes (Luke Norris) a touching moment when he uses a handful of earth to pillow her head, but once the graveyard scene is done her corpse is a pointless distraction. I have to say, though, that even when I thought Farr was out of his mind I wasn’t restless through any part of the three and a half hours; there’s always something interesting going on. And a number of the actors do commendable work, like Greg Hicks as Claudius – a crude snake-oil salesman at first but quick to shift gears when he smells danger, a true survivor – and Robin Soans as a somewhat tyrannical Polonius. Charlotte Cornwell, older-looking than the typical Gertrude (visually she’s a cross between Jane Alexander and the Judith Anderson of Laura), is very plausible, but her reading of the speech about Ophelia’s drowning, surprisingly, lacks feeling. I liked very much Cliff Burnett’s recitation of the Player King’s “Hecuba” speech. Best of all is Nixon’s short-haired, neurotic Ophelia. (Farr inserts a moment early in the play when she and Hamlet exchange a passionate kiss, which works well to showcase her confusion at his neglect of her.) Designer Jon Bausor has put her in a full-scale bridal outfit for the mad scene, which she plays with a jagged, dangerous energy that’s quite unnerving. This Hamlet is a sometime head-scratcher but I’m glad I saw it.

The National Theatre production of Othello will be screened in HD this summer as part of the NT Live series.

- Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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