It seems absurd that the first black man to play Othello at the National Theatre was David Harewood, as recently as 1997. A young Clint Dyer, visiting the National in the 1980s, was horrified by the theatre’s – and every other theatre’s – continuing use of blackface, even defacing a photograph of Laurence Olivier playing the title role he found hanging in the lobby.
Now Dyer, recently appointed deputy artistic director of the National, becomes the first black man to direct Othello at the institution, having already become the first black man to direct any play there with 2020’s superlative Death of England.
And like Death of England, his Othello tackles the issue of race head on. While the insidious spectre of racism hangs over any staging of the play, here it is horribly immediate. Black shirted thugs – a kind of twisted Greek chorus – haunt the stage making Nazi-esque salutes, and even Othello’s admirers leave his offered handshakes pointedly hanging.
Even against this backdrop, Giles Terera’s Othello has a lofty confidence that places him above such tawdry matters – his commanding delivery is just as impressive as the martial arts skills he displays when Othello is working out, or effortlessly disarming an adversary.
An Othello so unimpeachable requires an equal and opposite in his Iago, and Paul Hilton delivers. The last Othello staged at the National featured Rory Kinnear in the role, and at first I feared Hilton’s more overtly comic depiction, Oswald Mosley meets Basil Fawlty, would fall short of that high bar. But he gradually reveals a gleeful malevolence that’s grimly captivating. There’s a clockwork quality to the way he works the stage, delivering his asides to an imagined audience that take physical shape on stage, hanging on, and reacting to, his every word. These figures are ever-present, stalking the periphery of the tiered, concrete-grey amphitheatre that makes up the stage.
Dyer does not pussyfoot around. Iago’s implied physical violence against his wife is made explicit through vivid bruises worn by Emilia from the first time we meet her. And Roderigo – an excellent performance by Jack Bardoe – is not only a dim mark, but a wilful sadist, his tongue lolling out in almost sexual excitement when he thinks Othello is about to get lynched.
Rosy McEwen is also brilliant as Desdemona, her initial confidence sagging into heartbreaking despair as she comes to terms with the real man she married. Her final scene with Emilia, a discourse on domestic abuse and toxic masculinity, could have been written yesterday.
And that’s the point of Dyer’s production – before the play begins, various dates between the first performance of Othello and today are beamed above the stage, underlining the fact that the themes of racism and abuse are as depressingly relevant now as they were in 1603. Hopefully the same won’t be true 419 years hence.