At university, a set text when studying Shakespeare was Jan Kott’s influential, Shakespeare, our Contemporary. This scholarly work was lucid and highly provocative. Kott’s book was a Molotov cocktail of ideas. For example, in an essay on King Lear, Kott places Shakespeare in conversation with Samuel Beckett and philosophical existentialism. This kind of intellectual daring ignited my undergraduate imagination. Kott was blasting the brown varnish from a “heritage” view of Shakespeare’s work so that we could see anew the startling, colourful vulgarity and genius of the Bard. It was thrilling stuff. The theatre director, Peter Brook, wrote in The Preface to Kott’s study:
His writing is learned, it is informed, his study is serious and precise, it is scholarly without what we associate with scholarship. The existence of Kott makes one suddenly aware how rare it is for a pedant or a commentator to have any experience of what he is describing. It is a disquieting thought that the major part of the commentaries on Shakespeare’s passions and his politics are hatched far from life by sheltered figures behind ivy-covered walls.
Looking back at my dog-eared copy of the book, I have underlined this paragraph and written with adolescent enthusiasm in the margin: yes, yes, yes. Of course, I realise now that Brook was indulging in intellectual trash-talk and, as I sat through countless productions that contrived to “update” Shakespeare and make him relevant, I began to question and, then, to curse, Jan Kott. Shakespeare’s text, poetry and story-telling were often mutilated in order to conform with some half-baked, puerile conceit whose purpose was to make a name for the director. In such hands, Shakespeare became less relevant rather than more.
However, occasionally a production of a Shakespeare play comes along that makes me re-examine my sceptical stance. Nicholas Hytner’s modern dress, updated Othello is one such production. There is a clarity, urgency and cohesiveness of vision operating here that serves Shakespeare’s play. It doesn’t feel contrived to set the action in a Cypriot military compound because this environment rings true with the themes of the play and enhances, rather than smothers them. Hytner provides the audience with a fresh, imaginative route with which it might approach the play and make sense of character motivations. Jonathan Shaw, the military adviser on the production and a serving member of the British Army, writes with insight in his programme essay:
Othello’s external themes are set within the context of soldiers in an operational setting. The set designs accurately expose the bleak functionality of the environment within which modern soldiers live on operations. Environment affects behaviour; the joyless T-bar barriers and Corimec shelters shrivel the soul. In such a raw environment, and with the removal of the disciplining power of an impending war, the easy recourse to drunkeness and violence is understandable; and the play is astonishingly violent to modern eyes.
The testosterone-fuelled world of the army camp may produce the heroic values of bravery and loyalty, but it can also be a toxic breeding ground for rivalry, jealousy and violence. The dusty line between watching your comrade’s back and stabbing him in it is continually tested by the desert winds. Iago’s jealousy is founded on Cassio being favoured by Othello and raised through the ranks ahead of him. Cassio is acting above his station. Othello is the cause of this. The tapeworm of resentment twists in Iago’s gut.
This resentment begins to poison Iago and his schemes to exact revenge spiral out of control and become deadly. Rory Kinnear’s finely-tuned performance captures Iago’s psychological imprisonment by the “green-eyed monster” through subtle shifts of tone, emphasise and gesture. At the beginning of the play, he cadges a smoke and, with sleight of hand, slips the whole packet of cigarettes into his pocket. This act of petty theft hints at more serious moral defects in his character.
Kinnear’s Iago is a man who will manipulate and deceive with blokeish charm in order to get what he wants. He plays Othello, casually planting the pernicious seeds of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness in the Moor’s mind. The richness of detail and depth in Kinnear’s performance provokes in the audience laughter, pity and horror. It does so because we recognise in ourselves and others the trace elements of Iago’s vices.
Adrian Lester’s Othello first appears on stage with the sunniness of a man about to marry and the confidence of one who effortlessly commands respect from his soldiers. He is physically virile – a man’s man and a ladies man. His speech is smoothly orotund – he has the honey tongue of the evangelical preacher. He has “a free and open nature”. He is a natural born leader. All this is eroded by the corrosive acid of Iago’s spite.
As the supposed evidence against his wife accumulates, his trust in her disintegrates and he along with it. Everything he believed and loved is called into question. He is tormented by doubt and fear. He sniffs every word and action for the bed sheet odour of betrayal. Lester’s final scenes with Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) in a portakabin bedroom are hugely affecting. The mental desperation that finally leads Othello to kill his wife is unbearable to watch. And when Iago’s malicious lie is revealed, Othello’s suffering is heart breaking. The great man is reduced to a husk, a pitiful creature who must “die upon a kiss.” The emotional conviction animating Lester’s performance will fill his cabinet with awards.
Nicholas Hytner’s modern setting of the play does not overwhelm Shakespeare’s storytelling but gives it a pace and clarity. This is the best production of Othello I have seen and maybe the best that I will see in my lifetime. It is so good that it made me dig out my university copy of Jan Kott's study. This Othello reminded me that William Shakespeare is, indeed, our contemporary.
Othello at the National Theatre, London