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Comprehension is paramount. “We’re evangelical about that,” says British actor Rory Kinnear, who plays Iago in the National Theatre Live production of Othello.
Adrian Lester is in the title role.
“Our paths had never crossed,” says Kinnear on the telephone from London on the eve of a week-long holiday following the close of the play at the National. Its run lasted from April to early this month.
It’s a bit odd, he says, because for months they had been like family and suddenly everyone leaves and you can never recreate that feeling between those people again.
He was excited to work with Lester, knowing that the weight of the play hinged on the equality that existed between these two actors and their interpretations.
“Iago is the one driving the first half and then Othello takes over and everything skids into chaos,” he explains. “We were both interested in making it as truthful and credible as possible.
“He would look at me after a particular line during rehearsals and say: ‘I didn’t believe that,’” says Kinnear, who was tickled by their working relationship. “We both walked hand in hand and on the last night, Adrian burst into tears during the curtain call.”
It was the kind of production that Kinnear relishes because everything served the play.
He was also in Hamlet recently with the same director, Nicholas Hytner, who has been the artistic director at the National for the past 10 years. For the second time, Hytner has put Shakespeare in a modern context, which worked magnificently in both instances.
Othello is the most linear of the Bard’s plays as it deals with men and war and the violence that it brings forth.
Kinnear feels the rules are simple when playing Shakespeare: it’s all about the text; he tells you what he wants to say.
The cast has to unpack all of that, let go of all the rules, laws and theories that might shackle the production and check that everyone is on the same page.
This is especially true of Othello, when playing the villain. Kinnear views Iago as Shakespeare’s most action-driven character. He speaks his mind to the audience, which keeps them informed of the intrigue, and lies to everyone else.
There’s no sub-plot. There are six main characters secluded from their own society with the aim of going to war. It doesn’t happen and all that violence and machismo turns in on itself. It’s that simple, says Kinnear.
Because of that, and this is Shakespeare’s brilliance, it is as relevant today as it was when it was written. “Shakespeare was always oblique when he wrote, not to get himself into trouble, which helps with future readings. He reflects on the human condition and leaves us that legacy,” he says. And with this one in particular, he thinks “it was about men trusting the women too little and the men too much”.
Playing Shakespeare on such a world stage might seem impossibly daunting to some but for Kinnear there’s a freedom about a playwright whose work is firmly established. “You don’t have the responsibility to the play, because it already has a reputation.”
His own debut play, The Herd – “a very personal story” – opened in London at the end of their run, so he understands this dilemma even better. If the play doesn’t resonate, it disappears. “Luckily,” he says, “I was blessed with a good director and cast and the audiences and reviews have been great.”
I suspect it also has something to do with the writing and he’s already committed to pursue this line of his career with more vigour. “It’s going to give me something to do while on film or television shoots.”
In his most recognisable role internationally up to now, Kinnear was assistant to M in the last two James Bond movies.
But back to Iago and that dilemma. Playing the scheming soldier, Kinnear was looking at a man who had been passed over for promotion time and again. “He was probably a working class lad with a chip on his shoulder,” he explains.
And to top it all, in walks Othello with beautiful wife in tow and again chooses another for the role Iago was expecting.
Another angle he addresses is that of racism, so often associated with Othello. Yet they decided not to follow that route. “It’s not in the writing,” he again points to the source. Embroidering on that line of thought, he refers to Merchant of Venice, which is so obviously an anti-Semitic play. Apart from a few derogatory remarks by Desdemona’s father who was upset about losing his teenage daughter, there’s nothing else that hints of racism.
“It’s always the last refuge of the dispossessed,” notes Kinnear, but here Shakespeare is not describing a racist society. It’s more a case of those interpreting also ascribing racism because it has become such a scourge in today’s world.
“There’s just not that sense of hatred in Othello.”
• The 2013/2014 Fugard Theatre Bioscope National Theatre Live screenings will be on Sundays at 11am. The full line-up is available on www.thefugard.com with booking open for four screenings already:
The Audience (with Helen Mirren, October 27).
Othello (with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, November 10).
Macbeth (with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, December 1).
Hamlet (with Rory Kinnear, December 22).