14. July 2013 · Comments Off on A Human Face: Othello at the National Theatre · Categories: Reviews

In ‘A Divine Image’, a rarely known Song of Experience in which William Blake subverts his own words in typical fashion, we read,

Cruelty has a Human Heart

And Jealousy a Human Face

Terror, the Human Form Divine

And Secrecy, the Human Dress

All of which we find well represented in that other William’s creation, Othello.

The connection between these two greatest of English wordsmiths comes through the representation of slaughtered innocence in the latest production of the Shakespearan drama by acclaimed Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, for Desdemona is played by a former winner of the Tithe Grant awarded by the Blake Society, young actress Olivia Vinall.

Critics have praised the play’s frantic present-day interpretation of the Moor of Venice’s tragedy, and indeed the vacuity of hatred against the most banal and everyday backdrop, with Iago and Roderigo smoking and plotting outside a pub with loud music blasting out the windows, and the overriding tension in a modern military compound in Cyprus, charged with male warring itch and the soldiers’ boredom and frustration flow seamlessly into the consciousness of a 21st Century’s audience, regardless the Elizabethan verse.

This is a men’s world in which a few women such as Emilia (played by Lyndsey Marshal) strive—rather unsuccessfully—to make their voice heard, and where the poison of power and betrayal seep through the ancient military ideals of loyalty and honour. Rory Kinnear is a truthful Iago, brimming with uncalled-for spite and bitterness, and Adrian Lester plays a superb Othello, whose nobility, dignity and grandeur we will see painfully twisted out of him by Iago’s hands and by the ghosts his mind engenders, until he is utterly transmogrified by the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on (these verses of course by the earlier William).

In this ruthless atmosphere Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona is a breath of freshness, a flower that, it is clear from the start, cannot last in such a barren land. The power of her love, the balm of her good intentions, and the light of her beauty and blamelessness are soon humbled into the doleful fragility of innocence betrayed and finding out until it’s far too late. Because the love between her and Othello is portrayed as so unmistakably true and strong, its destruction is all the more poignant.

There is a slanted radiance in fragile humanity laid bare as Desdemona sings the Willow song in the harsh grey scenery of the compound, Emily hesitantly joining in on the night of both their deaths. That last, faint light is crushed in the quite unbearable scene of Desdemona’s murder that joins the symbols of all those contraries that made the crime possible: the couple’s wedding sheets on the compound’s cabin’s bed, the impersonal and somewhat sordid décor, Desdemona’s willowy womanhood clad in a most ordinary nighty and underwear exposed beneath the rage of her military-attired and by now deranged husband, whose grief overwhelms him even as he does the deed.

As the performance started, this reviewer wondered whether if it was really necessary to replicate a cinematographic change of settings with the speed and background music of an action film. Yet all that which might have made a spelled-out scenario for a lazy contemporary viewer vanished in the grippingly human retelling of the tale.

Let us watch out for Olivia Vinall, a blooming talent with Blakean inclinations.


Othello runs at the National Theatre until 5th October 2013. More information and ticketing is available via the National Theatre’s website. There will be a National Theatre Live screening in cinemas across the UK and around the world; visit the NT Live website to find your nearest venue.

Blake’s watercolour Othello and Desdemona (c.1780) is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and can be viewed via the MFA’s website.

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