The newest NT Live* show conceives of Othello as a play less about jealousy than about army life. Director Hytner even went so far as to hire a 30-year veteran of the British Army as a production adviser.
It is bold idea and completely coherent: Othello leads an army in a war that is cancelled when the Turks' fleet sinks; now he's in command of a garrison of men idle and bored in a hot climate (the text still mentions Cyprus, but the costumes and production design hint at Iraq). The camaraderie of action is replaced by an atmosphere in which tensions rise and scheming thrives. A drinking session that gets out of control is a masterstroke.
Hytner's approach downplays the racial element that has always loomed so large: references to the "sooty bosom" of "the black ram" apart, the play unfolds in a context that lends a chilling plausibility to the process by which Othello becomes convinced of Desdemona's infidelity.
Only we know the root of Iago's rage; his general, who counts on the loyalty that is the essence of soldiers' relationships, is a man with eyes wide shut.
An appropriately grim set design of concrete walls and portable cabins is moved around like pieces in a jigsaw - the slightly grubby standard-issue furniture and fingerprints on the wall are nice touches - making for small spaces that increase the intimacy of the drama, but the show belongs to its principals. Kinnear, such a splendid Hamlet, plays Iago as a man with a giant chip on his shoulder. He's sharp all right but there's something of the lager lout about him, too: he's a man born to resent others' success. Lester, meanwhile, charts the slow disintegration of the hero with precision and conviction.
Vinall's Desdemona is a bit shrill and frantic, which slightly undermines her hysteria in the bedchamber scene - though her murder had me flinching and holding my breath. And Marshall's Emilia, a tough-minded member of the platoon, is excellent even if the production never solves the problem that has always nagged me: why would Desdemona's maid be so gullible about the handkerchief theft?
That said, this is a bold beautifully spoken production that makes for a riveting and enormously watchable version of a great classic.
* NT Live is a project of London's National Theatre in which productions are filmed and broadcast in real time to cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. We get them here on hard drive a few weeks later.
Cast: Adrian Lester, Rory Kinnear, Olivia Vinall, Lyndsey Marshall
Running time:200 mins
Verdict: Brilliant interpretation