Othello: Moor or less

Find out why John Stonborough found this production of Othello ‘racist and ridiculous’!


Othello doesn’t end well, but this contemporary production at the Olivier Theatre doesn’t start well either, with Rory Kinnear (Iago) reprising his father Roy’s blokeney accent, to jeer at Brabantio’s window.  “An old black ram tupping your white ewe” works when set mid-Med long ago. But here, now, in 21st century Britain, the scene is both racist and ridiculous.

And so this “circumcised dog” of a production hobbles on, with Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) pandemonic in urchin-chic pedal pushers and grubby plimsolls, a flirty kid, coquetting round her gentle Obama-ish General (Adam Lester). His joy in his pretty new blonde bride is soon soured by scheming, despicable Iago, lumbering in Estuary “O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on”. The only time his Corporal thuggishness feels right is when he suckers Cassio into the fight that becomes a mess-room brawl.

With restlessness, as the scenes unfold, comes the realisation that Nicholas Hytner’s Gangland-style boot-camp is never going to fly. Nor does the music (ugly discords off) help soften Vicki Mortimer’s set. Harsh neon in an army portacabin frames the action, to become (cleverly) Desdemona’s council house bedroom. But surely not? Desdemona’s dad is a nobleman, not a dustman. Try as they might, Othello unravelling in Bardic prose, transplanted into modern fatigues, fatigues the audience. Even crazed by revenge, this Iago never wins the loathing that theatre lovers have for villains, and Iago is the greatest of them all.

It didn’t need to be so. Kinnear and Lester are such fine actors, but not under this direction. Their unconvincing grappling would never happen now. Blubbing Othello in command of an army jars for the audience, and the interval comes not a moment too soon. Then, at the warning gong, the sudden insight that to sit through Round Two could be one tragedy avoided. Leave the Moor “to die upon a kiss”. Instead, ponder at the bar whether setting Othello in our present isn’t a military blunder? Hytner leaves all too soon. He needs to put this right before he goes.