Tanya Franks and Giles Terera impress in Clint Dyer’s cleverly wrought new take on Othello at the National Theatre
“I do think it is their husbands’ fault if wives do fall”
Othello isn’t the Shakespeare play that gets me particularly enthused about seeing it again – I’ve caught a handful of productions that have impressed but I’ve a feeling that I can take it or leave it. But when the National Theatre announced their Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer would be tackling the play with Giles Terera at the helm, I was willing it to give it another go.
And he does an interesting job at attempting to reframe the play, both in terms of its legacy here on the South Bank (Olivier notoriously played it in blackface) and how it speaks to contemporary Black British experiences. An effective prologue nods to history but the production is more concerned with the latter, identifying the oppressive nature of systemic racism and the challenges in defying its power.
Chloe Lamford’s atmospheric set design with Michael Vale’s costumes place us in a fascist society. It could be the 1930s as Paul Hilton’s Iago recalls the likes of Mosley and Hitler but there’s a depressing realisation that it could also be today. As misogyny is paraded publicly and racism threaded through every action, the pernicious influence of mob rule is what sings through here.
In such a world, Terera’s reading of Othello is necessarily a complex one, an antihero who challenges us even as he’s much maligned. Hilton’s Iago can feel a heartbeat from twirling a moustache but his innate charisma is precisely where the power lies for these sorts. And Rosy McRwen is a pleasingly reinvigorated take on Desdemona, making her feel more real than she’s often allowed.
MVP is Tanya Franks as Emilia though (almost matching up to Alexandra Gilbreath’s peerless take in Sheffield) who quivers in her husband’s presence as he parades her bruises and black eyes. Her battle against the System – as the ensemble is termed, often moving en masse – is achingly moving and speaks to how hard it can be to try and move against the crowd, whoever you are.