I was at once proud and annoyed to discover that my hometown theater, The Coolidge, sold out of its tickets to the NT Live production of Othello on Thursday night.
NT Live, if you’ve somehow missed my haranguing, is the magic that allows you and me to be London theatergoers without involving TSA. They go balls-out one night in London, give the performance of their lives, film it, and then hour-by-hour it makes its way across time zones to cinemas in cities across the world.
TV presenter Emma Freud, mic in hand, greets the cinema crowd as the real-life rows fill up behind her. Last night she predicted that by evening’s end, 100,000 people would see the production.
Shut out at home, up the coast I went to the exquisite Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA, to take my seat.
Othello is a story of relentless manipulation and vengeance. Iago (ee-YAH-go), an army ensign, is passed over for promotion to lieutenant after years of loyal service to his general, Othello. He resolves to ensnare the distinguished Moor in a web of lies to drain the life and love from the majestic man. Othello’s devoted wife, Desdemona, is the target of Iago’s scheme.
Per the text, the Venetians are battling the Turks, but this production is set in the modern day: Combat boots and camo, conference rooms and clipboards. Rippling military physiques—heyyyy, Cassio!—and girly posters in the barracks. Nescafe and Heineken tall boys. Zip ties for handcuffs. Helicopters roar overhead and the muezzin’s call to prayer rides the wind. Desert dust almost stings your eyes.
It isn’t school days Shakespeare.
English actor Rory Kinnear is the embittered, seething Iago, who can barely spit out his most hateful lines when he frequently steps aside to speak candidly with the audience. And yet how smooth his brow, how meek his aspect while he methodically finds the fissures that will lead to the collapse of another’s whole world.
Othello’s a tough part, methinks, but Adrian Lester is the best I’ve ever seen. I saw a heart swell and pulse, spasm and break in his transfixing eyes. How helpless we feel as his greatest happiness is harpooned at its apex and he’s reduced to the puppetry of his subordinate.
My post-show tweet: Floodlights, chain link, corrugated walls, sterility. Soon felt like a prison, and we trapped with and shackled to Othello until journey’s end.
That’s how it is: maddening and increasingly airless—inexorable—as Iago’s web tightens round us all. Until what’s been done . . . well, go watch. Lucky for everyone there’s an encore coming up.
More NT Live Performance Reviews by Lynne Blaszak
A Small Family Business & Ayckbourn’s Art of Playmaking (June 2014)
Dear Christopher: A Meditation on #CuriousIncident (May 2014)
This House: A Fab New Play by James Graham (May 2013)
NT Live: You Should Go