On Racism and Jealousy

A timeless production of Othello in London cuts right to the heart of the human condition.

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Actors Rory Kinnear (Iago) and Adrian Lester (Othello) in Othello (National Theatre)

(The Root) -- Few theatrical productions are the talk of the town as much as the National Theatre's Othello currently is. Make no mistake: Shakespearean tragedy comes no better than this. Nicholas Hytner's swan song production after a decade as artistic director at the National is nothing short of masterful. This is Hytner's Sistine Chapel, his David and his Dying Slave all rolled into one.

While perhaps not possessing the cosmic resonance or philosophical profundity of King Lear or Hamlet, Othello is a timeless and wholly universal meditation on love, marriage, betrayal, jealousy ("the green-ey'd monster"), power, duplicity, manipulation, evil and, let us not forget, race.

Othello, a black man, is the tragic hero in a society governed by white people, and his demise is consciously orchestrated by a white man, Iago. With crude racial epithets and stereotypes such as "thick-lips" and "lascivious Moor" in abundance, Othello reminds us of the abject stupidity of racism and displays Shakespeare's enlightened and humane attitude toward black people.

While the racist fears about miscegenation that have preoccupied much of the critical discourse since the play's inception -- "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe" -- and the essentially nugatory scholarly debate as to how black Othello actually was have thankfully dissipated, the play's enduring racial relevance to today is undeniable. One need look no further than the travesty of justice in Sanford, Fla., or the intricately subtle racial hypocrisy that still exists at the top end of the class system to see why.

And yet Othello is arguably a play more about the corrosive effects of jealousy than about race per se, a story of "deception and derangement," when, as a result of the callous machinations of Iago, a frenzied, jealous passion leads Othello to smother his chaste wife, Desdemona. We, the audience, experience true catharsis, pity and fear as we watch this taut but lucid psychological drama unfold in an exceptional production.

Each time I watch a Shakespeare play, it clarifies some of the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition and presents me with yet another powerfully prescient and beautifully articulated insight into what it means to be a human being, often in the most dulcet, soul-stirring iambic pentameter ever to have poured forth from a pen.

Othello is certainly no exception and continues to resonate today, some 400 years after it was written, because sexual jealousy is still a basic and primal human emotion, as unchanging and perennial as the wind and the stars, as is love and the fear of betrayal. Racism, too, is sadly still rife, as is the barbarity that often accompanies it.

Following in the footsteps of prodigiously talented actors such as Ira Aldridge (1825), Paul Robeson (1930), Sir Laurence Olivier (1965), Anthony Hopkins (1981), James Earl Jones (1981), Willard White (1990) and Laurence Fishburne (1995), Adrian Lester is nothing short of phenomenal as the Moor of Venice. His poise, elegance, linguistic precision and superb clarity of diction wholly command the stage.

The theatrical master class given here by Lester is unnerving in its brilliance and nuanced intensity. Also the star of Hytner's groundbreaking Henry V in 2003, in which he played the eponymous English king in an iconic case of colorblind casting, Lester is Britain's modern-day Aldridge. Lester's portrayal of Othello's mental disintegration, his absolute certainty that he has been cuckolded and his subsequent histrionic downfall are sublime if not harrowing to behold.

As the Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley famously observed, "Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago." How right he was. Rory Kinnear is astonishingly accomplished as the quintessence of depravity, a man whose insatiable wickedness knows no equal.

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