“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy:
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on”
The themes of William Shakespeare’s plays are nothing if not timeless, performed for hundreds of years in numerous interpretations. “Othello,” a story of jealousy, corruption and betrayal is rife with these themes that transcend the years since its inception. Director Clint Dyer’s (“Ferryman”) recent production for the National Theatre in London takes full advantage of the timelessness of Shakespeare’s works.
“Othello” follows the story of the titular character (Giles Terera, “Hamilton”) and his blossoming relationship with the fierce and confident Desdemona (Rosy McEwan, “Blue Jean”), daughter of powerful senator Brabantio (Jay Simpson, “Pistol”). Othello’s advisor, Iago (Paul Hilton, “Lady Macbeth”), manipulates Othello to believe Desdemona is unfaithful and becoming intimate with the soldier Cassio (Rory Fleck Byrne, “Vampire Academy”). Throughout the course of the play, each character slowly descends into madness, often ending in heartbreak and death, as many Shakespearean tragedies do. “Othello” was recently performed at the National Theatre in London from November 2022 through January 2023, and the performance was screened at the Michigan Theater on May 21, 2023.
Othello and Desdemona are both roles that require a great emotional depth, and Terera and McEwen take this in stride. Both Othello and Desdemona experience a slow descent into madness over the course of the play, Othello questioning his relationship with Desdemona and Desdemona questioning Othello’s criticism of her supposed unfaithful actions. Terera and McEwen physically embodied this breakdown beautifully, Desdemona trying to suppress shaking and tears as she confides in Iago’s wife Emilia (Tanya Franks, “Family Affairs”) her confusion and distress over Othello’s actions, and Othello emphasizing a wide-eyed and unhinged nature as he grapples with the concepts placed in his mind by the cunning Iago.
In a similarly dazzling performance, Hilton brings out Iago’s two-faced nature, switching from a kind and trustworthy advisor to a conniving and scheming backstabber. His physical performance only adds to this perfect balance, his well-maintained posture and polite mannerisms deteriorating into a hunch and a slightly crazed presentation when speaking behind the back of Othello.
Other standout performances include supporting roles Cassio and Roderigo (Jack Bardoe, “The Canterville Ghost”). In a round-table discussion with members of the production team during the screening’s interval, Dyer explains his choice to avoid Rodrigo’s comedy and make him truly dangerous. Bardoe embodies this vital change through sporadic movements and impulsive behavior toward other characters.
One particularly striking feature of Dyer’s production is the ensemble “system.” This group of actors, composed of players with smaller roles or understudies, constantly lurks on the steps behind each scene, twitching and mocking the movements of actors onstage. Each member of this ensemble is dressed in all black with a number on their armbands, creating an indistinguishable and almost inhuman look for the group that represents a prejudiced majority. The threat comes not from individuals, but from the power of the system itself. In a genius directing decision and costumed exceptionally by Michael Vale (“My Perfect Mind”), this ensemble evokes the looming effects of society and its structures of bias. Dyer also explains the play’s place in a modern world. The audience enters the theater to find the set overtaken with projections of programs from past productions of the play in order to represent how the story has changed over time and applied to society as it evolves. This concept is beautifully capped off at the end of the show as Othello stumbles back from a fatal self-inflicted knife wound, joining the system behind him with the rest of his fellow actors.
The production is rounded out with precision lighting (Jai Morjaria, “Wuthering Heights”) and sound (Pete Malkin, “Death of England” and Benjamin Grant, “Death of England”). Tinnitus-esque ringing plagues Othello throughout the play, increasing in intensity as his life continues to break down. Moments in which characters manipulate or become part of the “system” are awash in a fluorescent blue-gray, which creates a beautiful motif for the ensemble and its effect on the other actors. Scenes and locations are expertly defined through sharp lighting transitions and clean breaks in sound. One particularly tense sequence uses lighting and sound to move back and forth between a conversation between Iago and Cassio and the eavesdropping Othello, who speaks in asides to the audience. While Iago and Cassio remain in a warm spotlight, the stark system lighting suddenly switches to a focus on Othello.
Aside from enjoying a well-done performance, it was a joy to view “Othello” at the Michigan Theater. Opening the screening was a medley of songs performed by organist Andrew Rogers, a staple of the Michigan Theater experience which really brought this faraway performance home here in Ann Arbor.
Furthermore, National Theatre Live has continually brought their London productions to movie theaters all over the world (including a screening of “Frankenstein” at the Michigan Theater for Halloween this past October). This provides fabulous opportunities for non-London-based theater enthusiasts to experience the beauty of this company’s productions (They have recently released an at-home streaming service, NTAtHome, as well). The professional nature of the filming even allows these audiences to have the best seat in the house, with close-ups of actors’ facial expressions and the details of the set. This kind of exposure to theatre is essential as the industry becomes more and more inaccessible, prices rising due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is heartening to see the work of National Theatre Live and companies like it to bring theatre to those who might not otherwise have the ability to enjoy it in person.
Combined with the joy of seeing international theater right here in the heart of Ann Arbor, The National Theatre production of “Othello” is a genius combination of modern themes with a classic story that continues to resonate in a timeless representation.
Daily Arts Writer Max Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.