Othello at the National, directed by Clint Dyer (who is the first ever black director of Othello), plays out like an exposed wound – raw and painful, with all the uncomfortable truth about anti-black racism in the play revealed. Representations of racism throughout the production include a chorus wearing blackface whilst holding police shields, a network of laceration scars across Othello’s back and an opening scene featuring a mob with flaming torches wanting to lynch Othello. Amongst other major themes, including misogyny, jealousy, mental anguish and domestic violence, the themes of racism and hatred remain the most central and significant in this production, as I am sure Clint Dyer intends them to be.
Giles Terera as Othello is an astonishing lead. His physical presence is formidable, and the opening scene elegantly references his success as a military commander and his physical dexterity, as Terera brandishes a training stick on a set that resembles a harsh stadium (with three sides of steep, grey steps). Terera’s opening movements set the scene for more of this kind of dramatic, stylised movement throughout the play, and indeed the choreography struck me as dance-like from the beginning, featuring mimed sequences and symbolic expressions of emotion. Terera’s impressive physicality continues, as he embodies the emotional torture that Othello undergoes, his body becoming writhing, erratic and skittish as he is slowly consumed by fear and doubt.
The production is dark – literally monochromatic in its staging, lighting and costumes, bleak in its narrative and hopeless in its ending – so what was to love? Like the flaming torches which begin the performance and punctuate the play with moments of heightened tension, there are only sparks of light in this show. One of them is the resilience and vulnerability of Emilia (Tanya Franks), wife of Iago and domestic abuse survivor.
Emilia’s quivering presence somehow simultaneously comes across as grounded, fierce and defiant. Her right arm is largely immobile and bandaged, presumably from an injury inflicted by her husband, and her right cheek is cut and bruised. Emilia’s body language is tightly knit and tense – all her limbs are hugged closely into her body as if to protect herself instinctively from harm (a stark contrast to Desdemona’s relaxed elegance). And yet her voice, even when her body language is telling a different story, conveyed strength and conviction – especially towards the climax of the play when she performs her speech about wives and husbands and then verbally defends both herself and Desdemona against her husband. The most exquisite moment of the play for me features Desdemona and Emilia sat on the front edge of the stage, staring forward but more connected than we have seen them before – a powerful and surging female energy rising between the two of them as they realise, with horror, all the torment that has been tossed into their lives by the men they are married to.
Whilst characters such as Othello, Emilia and Roderigo are captivating, some of the acting feels unconvincing. The chorus, or ‘System’, as the programme refers to them (perhaps a signpost to the hierarchical systems which dictate the events of the play) often feel too melodramatic, and ultimately quite distracting.
The production reminds the viewer that racism and poor mental health are inextricably linked. Othello’s descent into paranoia, under the influence of Iago’s lies and manipulation, reveals just how easily Othello’s thoughts are able to become terrifyingly self-destructive, when he has lived his whole life in a society which finds it so easy to hate him.
Running at the Lyttelton, London, until 21st January 2023 https://events.nationaltheatre.org.uk/events/85242
Review by Lucy Evans
Lucy’s passion for the arts began with drawing and painting at a young age and developed later on into a love of landscape painting and a degree in Art History, with a focus on Modernism and gender. Lucy has grown to love literature and acting in particular, and her experiences acting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been formative, convincing her that performance can be an essential tool for communication and connection, as well as of course being a valuable source of entertainment.
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