National Theatre’s powerful production of Othello brings A Level set text to life

National Theatre’s powerful production of Othello brings A Level set text to life

12 January 2023

Dr Markus Klinge, Teacher of English

On Wednesday 11 January, Lower and Upper Sixth English students enjoyed a trip to the National Theatre to see a production of Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the set texts on the A Level syllabus. For Upper Sixth students, this was a welcome opportunity to see a theatrical production of a text they have studied in detail in class, while for the Lower Sixth it was a taste of what is to come in September.

Set in the Lyttelton Theatre, the National Theatre’s medium-size performance space, the production had a sense of intimacy, which was counteracted by a set that recalled the monumentalism of ancient Greek theatres or of mid-twentieth-century fascist architecture. The production self-consciously sought to offer an Othello for the present day, foregrounding the theme of race (which has often been downplayed in recent productions): Othello’s Venice is replete with overt and covert displays of racism, politicians who refuse to shake hands with a black man, or who display semi-concealed white supremacist hand gestures to their followers. The production is very self-conscious of its own place in theatrical history: at the start, playbills of past Othellos were projected onto the stage, alerting the audience to the fact that even if Shakespeare’s play is not racist itself, a good number of past productions clearly have been. It was quite a shock to be confronted with long-forgotten images of Lawrence Olivier, Orson Wells and Anthony Hopkins in blackface, ready to play the lead role in Othello. Clint Dyer is the first black director to stage this play at the National Theatre, Britain’s most prestigious performance space, so in many ways this production is in itself an important staging post in redressing a long history of racism connected with this play.

Giles Terera was a very powerful Othello, with a strong and dignified physical presence; great but flawed and secretly deeply insecure, he is driven mad by jealousy – but, in this production, not to the point of publicly humiliating Desdemona by hitting her. Paul Hilton’s Iago was a mixture between a cartoon villain and a modern-day populist, not so much interested in racism in itself, perhaps, or in bringing down Othello, but rather in gathering followers, in gaining acclaim, and in creating chaos and malicious confusion. Desdemona is often a difficult character for twenty-first century audiences: semi-complicit in her own demise, she subordinates herself to Othello and often displays what we today would call battered wife syndrome. Not Rosy McEwen’s Desdemona, however. Dressed in a business-like trouser suit throughout, she is a Desdemona who is not afraid of power and status: her subordination to Othello is, in this production, merely deeply sarcastic playacting: Desdemona’s way of asserting her independence and of expressing her disapproval of Othello’s increasingly aggressive and volatile conduct. A Desdemona for the 21st century, perhaps?

While the National Theatre’s Othello was intellectually thoroughly engaging, it also appealed to its audience’s emotions, and the final scene was highly effective: shocking and utterly devastating. Our students left the theatre with much food for thought, and perhaps with a new perspective on a 400-year-old play. Here are some impressions: Natalia thought the play was “very moving”; Ovieya said: “I loved that we got the opportunity to watch a historically significant rendition of Othello”; Zara commented: “One word: fabulous!”; and Tilda and Kayleigh thought that “the lighting and the minimalistic set were phenomenal.”

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