As I left Othello at the National Theatre, I overheard someone say to their friend, “Tragedies, man… everyone dies.” But even if we knew how this was going to go, Clint Dyer’s production – the first by a Black director at this theatre – creates a sense of the unexpected. Confident, intelligent and frightening, it heavily suggests we’ll see something different, right from its gauntlet-wielding first tableau. Old posters of the play are projected onto the back wall. A man quietly cleans the stage. A clock ticks through the centuries, until we land back in 2022. History is breathing down our neck.
Foreboding creeps into the action from the very start, with a pulsing soundtrack and a mob atmosphere. Othello (Giles Terera) arrives onto Chloe Lamford’s brutalist amptitheatre-like set like a champion boxer. He’s just married Desdemona, with whom he is boyishly, proudly besotted, but he’s surrounded by a gang of creepy fascist-style blackshirts, and people won’t shake his hand. The lurking mood of trouble makes things febrile, edgy – as though it could all tip into violence at any moment, and he could be mauled in front of the crowd.
It’s pointedly noticeable that Othello is the only Black person on the stage, and Terera sensitively plays him as a man cornered, constantly having to justify his own existence. “She loved me for the dangers I had passed,” he says of Desdemona, and those dangers now feel very potent. Rosy McEwan’s Desdemona is naturalistic and modern, a strong, sensible partner prepared to face down those dangers alongside him. When someone tells Othello to “use Desdemona well”, her face curls into disdain.
Paul Hilton doubles down on the villainy as a commanding, unapologetically nasty Iago; he is itchily hypnotising to watch. With his pencil moustache and trouser braces, here he is half Oswald Mosley, half guy who spends too much time on the internet posting racist conspiracy theories to Facebook groups. He manipulates Othello’s marriage not for his own gain but because he thinks he can and should, taking pleasure in twisting language to tease at his sinister plans. Jack Bardoe is pliableâ and obedient as his sidekick Rodrigo, while Rory Fleck Byrne’s tragic Cassio is at first overly tactile, then hopelessly lost.
Dyer’s production has a quality that suggests it will quickly become a classic. It’s transfixing, full of vision, and maintains an urgent pace despite its three-hour running time. If anything, Othello’s descent into madness perhaps feels too quick and the emphasis on race doesn’t cohere as well in the second half. But there’s a suggestion that Desdemona’s betrayal wounds him more because she showed loyalty in a world of prejudice, his one true ally. After one conversation with Iago, he almost starts to malfunction, as though the rumours have literally broken him.
In the end, though, the most powerful part of this reading is that Emilia (a moving Tanya Franks), Iago’s wife, is suffering from domestic abuse. With a bruised cheek and an edgy demeanour, she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief because who knows what he will do to her if she doesn’t. It adds an almost unbearable helplessness to the scene the women share on the eve before Desdemona’s death. “Would you have never seen him,” Emilia says, knowing too much about what men are capable of. What follows is more horribly heartbreaking than ever.
National Theatre, until 21 Jan, with an NT Live screening on 23 Feb