In 1964, the National Theatre Company staged Othello with Laurence Olivier playing the military commander in blackface. Clint Dyer’s new production speaks to the play’s murky performance history in its opening optics, perhaps even to the ghost of Olivier’s Othello himself. There are posters of old productions projected on to Chloe Lamford’s spare, contemporary set and a cleaner scrubs the floor. It sets up a conceptual overhaul – a coming clean, of sorts.
But we are wrongfooted in the sense that, for much of its three hours, this Othello plays out as a traditional thriller that occasionally veers into melodrama. A new vision does come though, breathtakingly so, in a radical half-hour at the end when it feels as if Dyer is revealing another play beneath the story we know about jealousy and mistrust in which Othello is a flawed hero who commands our sympathies. This other play is about the tragedy of domestic violence. The women are not reduced to victims here while the men, including Othello, are controlling, toxic abusers. It is an almost obvious interpretation, once we have seen and heard it, yet it makes the play feel utterly new.
Never has the speech about wives and husbands (“If wives do fall”), delivered by Desdemona’s maid, Emilia (Tanya Franks), made better sense. She is the play’s other abused woman alongside Desdemona, visibly shaking in the company of her violent husband, Iago, and wearing a bloodied bruise across one eye. Franks steals the show with the scene and becomes the hero of this production.
Rosy McEwen is quietly radical in her role as Desdemona too, never simpering or scared. She appears as Othello’s equal, despite her paucity of lines, and while she and Giles Terera’s Othello do not have a passionate chemistry, there is tenderness and mutual respect between them, until he turns on her.
Terera, for his part, appears a contemporary figure while bearing the legacy of slavery on his body (a patchwork of laceration scars on his back). We watch him unravel but feel disdain when he claims to have loved his wife “too well” after murdering her.
Paul Hilton’s Iago, meanwhile, is the hammiest character on stage. The opposite of Mark Rylance’s cerebral and apparently unassuming Iago, Hilton has an over-egged comic villainy and appears like a cross between a Marvel-style Joker figure and a pantomime baddie who might have mistakenly wandered off the set of the theatre’s adjacent show, Hex.
The production does not seem entirely joined up in its vision, veering from what resembles Greek tragedy (there is a miming chorus) to modern melodrama. The thriller tropes are effective but overdone, with thunder, rain, jagged sounds, drumbeats, fire embers on a back screen, sudden spotlights and swirls of darkness. The chorus seem to represent inner demons; they bring creepiness, but also mystifying scenes such as one in which they emerge in masks, holding police shields.
It remains highly watchable and well-paced with good supporting performances from Rory Fleck Byrne as the earnest Cassio and Jack Bardoe as Roderigo. This is an Othello which feels unlike any other, its central figure a villain not a hero – a cleaning up of the play, indeed.
At the National’s Lyttelton theatre, London, until 21 January. In cinemas across the UK from 23 February and around the world on 27 April via NT Live.