Let me get out of the way all the things I didn't like about Othello, that way you can concentrate on the two things that impressed me.
This play revolves principally around one woman. And for a woman for whom her father dies of heartache for hitching up with a Moor; a woman who reduces her husband to murder and is one reason the conniving two-faced Iago plots the downfall of his Master, the Desdemona I watched is just not worthy of that kind of mayhem. I found her so irritating that I wanted her to die at Othello's hand in the domestically violent scene near the end of this lengthy play. Why? Because she was unentertaining, inexperienced and a dancer (please stop standing in fourth!) who was obviously playing Shakespeare to the audience. I didn't once believe that this young woman had the spirit to seduce a general of Othello's calibre either with her innocence or cunning. But then perhaps there's no accounting for taste. What sealed the deal for me in this underwhelming performance was the scene in which she is woken by Othello as he prepares to kill her for her alleged cuckolding of him. Othello announces to her quite plainly that he intends to kill her and yet she lies, at a fetching angle, all jutting hip bone and taut girl shorts, crying. Who does that? Who lies crying, not in terror, but in sadness when her obviously crazed husband announces that he's going to take her life? I must be offering a twenty-first century response but by this point I was bored silly of her and she wasn't dispatched a minute too soon.
And then there's Othello himself. Watching, in 2013, the self-hate of an apparently accomplished Moor - he'd be called a Black man these days - is frustrating. Yes it might explore racial prejudice - where a Black man is indispensible in the military matters of Venetian glory but can't be trusted to marry the blonde (and boring) daughter of his colleague - yawn. You have ask yourself why Othello would fall for such a woman? Apparently she listens to him attentively, plays the lute and sings, but yawn, she is also half his age. Even four hundred years ago, the older man craving a much younger beauty stereotype was all the rage. Script aside, and while it may be sacrilege not to fawn on Adrian Lester, I found his Othello's emotionally turbulent journey from respected statesman to broken wife murderer erratic. I didn't feel him develop his doubts and second-guessing convincingly.
And so onto what I did like: the staging, lighting and costuming is brilliant. The play is set in contemporary London and the sliding containers create a shifting sense of place and mood. The clever costuming brings a class perspective to the play. Rory Kinnear brings humour to his Iago with a Cockney steeliness and opportunism that provides a comical contrast with lovelorn Roderigo and his wimpy moaning. The macho military background and our familiarity in these recent times of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom and the desert fatigues of soldiers and marines, tightens the visual tension and the expectation of violence.
Second on my list is Emilia as a character and how impressed I am by Shakespeare's (intended?) feminism. Emilia differs so strikingly from Desdemona. Perhaps it's a reflection of her social standing that she's experienced a less sheltered and so more worldly life. She describes how women are used as property and then goes on to argue for equality for women in marriage. In the early 1600's? As I didn't read the play for English Literature at school, I can't be sure of her exact wording but I do know that I was distinctly impressed with her and felt quite relieved that there was one sensible, believable woman on stage. She isn't a saint; she lies to Desdemona and she's sufficiently shrewd to suggest that were she offered an Indecent Proposal (à la the 1993 Demi Moore and Robert Redford film) she'd be willing, at the right price to advance herself (or sacrifice herself depending on how you read her) through or for her husband's standing. She knows her sexual worth and the power she can hold if she is sufficiently manipulative. And it's this complexity that I like.
So would I recommend it to you? Well, it's a classic isn't it? But did I like it? No.
Othello playing in repertoire at The Olivier Theathre, National Theatre until 5 October.