Friday, October 11, 2013

The essential Othello

Adrian Lester as Othello.

Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo: Johan Persson

''With Hamlet, you don't get to play Hamlet, Hamlet plays you,'' says Adrian Lester. ''And Othello is a bit like that.'' We talk on the phone shortly after Lester has come off stage, fresh from his performance in a new production from London's National Theatre. His Othello has been widely acclaimed, described as poetic, charismatic, blazing with authority: from today, a live recording of this production can be seen in selected Australian cinemas, as part of the NT Live season.

Director Nicholas Hytner always sets Shakespeare in a modern context: when he cast Lester as Henry V, for example, he evoked the Iraq War. Yet, says Lester, there is no avoiding the present, no matter what setting the director chooses; a Shakespeare play staged in 2013 is inevitably contemporary in some sense. And Hytner's vision, he adds, ''imposes very little on the play, and leaves the essential elements of the character in place''.

His Othello is, first and foremost, a military man: ''Being a soldier is very, very important to who he is.'' He's a figure of charisma and authority who inspires loyalty and respect. Opposite him, Rory Kinnear plays Iago as a squaddie passed over for promotion, who begins to toy with Othello with no thought of causing great harm, then becomes addicted to the adrenalin rush of control and manipulation.


And he's able to convince Othello, with almost disconcerting speed, that he is being betrayed by his new wife. Approaching the play, Lester says, ''to raise the stakes properly, I assumed Othello has never been in love before. And it makes absolute sense.'' The character is utterly sure of himself in the military realm, but in a new world of emotions, he's uncertain: Iago plays on that and on his uncertainties.

In Hytner's vision, Desdemona is the only civilian on the base - Iago's wife, Emilia, has been made into a serving soldier - ''and she looks really out of place in this unwelcoming setting, all concrete blocks and makeshift office furniture,'' Lester says. ''A violent, saccharine, dry backdrop, where you see this young woman, and this man who has never been loved before, trying to have a relationship.

''I did a lot of work on Act 3, scene iii, in which Iago convinces him that his wife is having an affair. Because I had to make sense of it and I realised that what Othello can't deal with is the doubt. The if and the maybe.''

For Lester, Othello's feelings for Desdemona are caught up in his feelings about himself: his difficulty in believing that he is worthy of being loved. ''When any of us are in love, I think that the honest part of our true nature in loving someone, is that when we stand in front of the object of our affection, that actually weakens us. It doesn't make us feel strong.'' This is the vulnerability that Iago identifies.

Lester, 45, was born in Birmingham, started performing with a youth theatre company and studied at RADA. On stage, his roles range from Robert in Stephen Sondheim's Company (for which he won an Olivier award) to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He has done plenty of Shakespeare, including the leads in both Hamlet and Henry V. Between 2002 and 2012, he was a regular cast member of the long-running British TV series Hustle, an inventive drama about a group of con artists. He was going to play Othello in the late 1990s for Sam Mendes but chose instead to take a part in a Hollywood movie, Primary Colors.

When we speak, the live recording of the performance hasn't yet been made and he's happy to admit that he's very nervous about it. ''I haven't done one before, Rory's done it twice.'' He gives a detailed account of preparations for the recording, which include a couple of run-throughs just for the filmmakers.

For his Othello, he adds, ''I don't think I could have had a better Iago, I think I've been blessed.'' He mentions a scene that represents the collaborative process for him. ''Iago is wary of bringing up the subject of infidelity, because he knows he's on a knife edge.

''So Rory plays Act 3 scene iii very delicately and I think it's great that we've found that between us. We've really worked hard to try to play that in the right way. I hope that when people see it on screen that they think we've managed to crack it, or at least come close to it.''

When it comes to the depiction of race and its importance to the play, Lester believes it's often misunderstood.

''In our interpretation, and in any interpretation, the fact that Othello is not from the same place as everyone else is very important. He's an outsider in that world,'' Lester says. ''Normally, he is the only black character on stage.'' But for much of the time, this is accepted within the world of the play: there are only a few scenes when this is commented on and it is in very specific contexts. ''There was more fuss about Colin Powell being in charge of the armed forces in America than there is in Shakespeare's play.''

To Lester, ''Iago uses the fact that Othello is not from there to manipulate him, and cleverly weaves insecurity about race into him, and Othello then uses them against himself.'' Lester says that he does not necessarily regard Othello as a play about race, ''but it definitely became one in the English-speaking world''.

There is also the question of who gets to play Othello. Often the role has been taken by white actors ''blacking up'': this has happened in major productions as recently as 1990. Lester says he finds it impossible to imagine that this could happen again.

He has an additional reason for reflecting on the history of who takes the role. His wife, actress and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, has written Red Velvet, a play about an actor named Ira Aldridge who left the US in 1825, toured England and Europe and became a celebrated performer. He is believed to have been the first black actor to have played Othello.

Red Velvet had its premiere last year, with Lester as Aldridge. He and Chakrabarti won several awards for the production. It will be staged again in London, then they take it to New York in March next year for a season at St Ann's Warehouse.

There is a scene in Red Velvet in which Lester plays Aldridge playing Othello. He presents it as it would have been performed at the time, in a 19th-century style, with positions and hand gestures, and a sense of display. It was quite a challenge, he says, to be convincing to a modern audience, while capturing the histrionic style.

He has been taken aback that there is still so little acknowledgement, in theatrical and academic circles, of the importance of Aldridge to British culture and identity. The actor never went back to the US: Lester likes the idea that with Red Velvet, his story will be returning there.

Othello is at selected cinemas.
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