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Review: OTHELLO, National Theatre

Review: OTHELLO, National Theatre

Clint Dyer's history-making production runs until 21 January

Review: OTHELLO, National Theatre

Clint Dyer's Othello begins with a bold theatrical prelude. As the audience enter, the stage is washed in a collage of posters from past productions of Othello. Look closely and you'll see some famous faces; Olivier, Hopkins. Look closer and you'll see the racist history of blackface that is part and parcel of the play's performance history.

An actor soon emerges with a broom to sweep the stage, but this history cannot be swept under the rug. Instead, Dyer is asking us to acknowledge the uncomfortable problems that are woven into the play's past. As deputy artistic director of The National Theatre, Dyer is the first black man to direct a production of Othello at the National.

His directorial focus is forensic, magnifying the psychodrama at the heart of Shakespeare's play and turning Othello's cognitive turmoil inside out with surgical precision. At its core it becomes the story of a black man driven to the limits by a hostile and racist world.

Dyer introduces a vast interplay of ideas and imagery. Militarism lingers throughout: Othello's world may be abstracted, but it is grounded in real life thanks to quoting from fascist aesthetics. The cast patter up and down a neo-classical cascade of stairs that could have been designed by Albert Speer; Paul Hilton's beguiling Iago and his lackies are dressed in literal black shirts. If that wasn't enough, Iago bears more than a passing resemblance to Oswald Mosley. He even gesticulates with the same animated ferocity of a certain other moustachioed fascist.

Hilton almost sings the rhythm in Iago's monologues, relishing each slimy syllable. They are performed directly to a chorus (referred to in the programme as "the system"). They cheer, applaud, and raise clenched fists in tightly choreographed bursts of staccato movement. The stage effectively becomes a stadium rally, an echo chamber, an orchestra of racial hatred with Iago as conductor and Othello in the crosshairs.

From the moment where he muscles onto the stage, Giles Terera's Othello has a warrior's concretene physicality. His presence is daunting, happy to exhibit his dexterity with a training stick and throw a few strikes at a punching bag. Jealously induces a physical as well as a mental metamorphosis, the warrior's composure is reduced to jittery psychosis. There is a painful resonance to this: BAME communities are at higher risk of developing mental health problems in adulthood than any other ethnic group in the UK.

Dyer never loses sight of Othello as a political thriller. A frenetic pace keeps the production punchy and aerodynamic. Chloe Lamford's storeyed set enables cinematic power dynamics to blossom between performers whilst sound designers, Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant and co-composer Sola Akingbola weave a subtle but menacing sonorous aural tapestry bubbiling beneath the intrigue.

The resulting frosty gloom stifles any sense of warmth between Othello and Rosy McEwen's defiant yet often clinical Desdemona. But this is not a romantic Othello. Here he is a victim through and through.

Othello plays at The National Theatre until 21 January

Photo Credit: Myah Jeffers

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