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Review: Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello

Rory-Kinnear-and-Adrian-L-008In an interview Rory Kinnear said that playing Iago in Othello has been a long time in the planning. National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner had talked to him about playing the part in 2007, even earlier - 2003 - he'd talked to Adrian Lester about playing the title role.

So Hytner has obviously had a long time to think about how he'd approach the play and do his research. For Hamlet three years ago in which Kinnear played the lead Hytner consulted his father, a barrister, and investigated security states. For Othello he's taken on a military adviser to shape Othello's and Iago's back stories and, most importantly, how they relate to each other.

The result is a very solid production that whips through its three hours and had a few people on their feet at the curtain call - and this was a preview performance.

With Hytner and Shakespeare you know that you are in a safe pair of hands. He picks actors that can deliver the lines in a way that makes you forget they were written more than 400 years ago and while he modernises the setting, it always makes sense. It doesn't feel like he's done it for the sake of doing something different; it doesn't feel forced.

Here the action in the main takes place on a military base, a place of inevitable heightened masculinity and testosterone. It is a place where the bonds of brotherhood and loyalty form the fabric of the community and, as Othello find out, when those bonds are broken it has a devastating effect.

But what of our hero and his nemesis in loyal friend's clothing? Well Lester's Othello has a stateliness that just occasionally belies the character's insecurities about his position. Insecurities that Iago exploits so that Othello, bruised by Desdemona's supposed infidelity is very quick to react. This isn't an Othello that looks conflicted but whose pride has been hurt.

While Lester's Othello has muscle and stature, Kinnear's Iago while an able military man feels diminutive in contrast, positively ordinary in fact. He has the ability to blend into the crowd, appear unassuming and plies such a subtle and artful craft of deception it is at times joyful to watch.

Indeed Kinnear's Iago can be seen to be enjoying himself to the point where the repetitive tag of 'honest' placed on him by others becomes an in joke with the audience. Hytner has teased out the irony in Othello to the point where it is surprisingly funny but equally you never lose your sense of just how nasty Iago is.

The only weakness for me was Desdemona (Olivia Vinall). She is a thankless character, much like Ophelia and difficult to pull off. I've only seen one satisfactory performance and that was Kelly Reilly's at the Donmar where she moved me to tears. Vinall never really makes an impression and when she does it is too late to feel much for the character. Indeed it is Lester's blind agony at her supposed betrayal that is more interesting to watch in the bedroom scene.

I loved what Hytner did with Hamlet and Timon of Athens and I love his Othello. Lester is a joy to watch but this is Kinnear's play.

Othello runs in rep at the Olivier Theatre until August 18. You can read Poly's review here.

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Now I could just rest with the obvious, Rory Kinnear, with whom Mr W has worked several times - Hamlet, Richard II and Skyfall but no, I'm not going to do that. Sat in the same row as Poly and I was Anna Chancellor from The Hour and on stage, as Cassio, was Jonathan Bailey whom Poly spotted in the audience at the first night of Peter and Alice. Think that is quite an impressive haul if I might say so myself.