When Kinnear utters Iago’s cold words — “I hate the Moor,” or “I am not what I am” — he’s reciting hard, immutable facts. The progression to tragedy feels wrenchingly certain, and all the more so because Lester’s Othello is so accessibly human. He’s a man here of passion as well as action, and the toll taken by Othello’s suspicions of Olivia Vinall’s endearing Desdemona is made pitiably real.
In one of many inspired choices, director Hytner stages in an army camp bathroom the scene of Othello’s eavesdropping on what he believes is a confession by Cassio (the splendid Jonathan Bailey) to an affair with his wife. Kinnear’s Iago has Lester hide in a stall, and after Iago draws Cassio out on his relations with another woman, Lester’s Othello drapes himself over a toilet and vomits. He can’t, however, purge the feelings of betrayal taking root, like toxic seeds.
Vicki Mortimer’s rendering of a military base in the Mediterranean conveys both the gritty urgency of a war movie and the starkness of a landscape where an illness of mind can breed. It is, simply put, the best “Othello” I’ve ever seen, and it arrives on screen in Washington in October, through the good offices of NT Live.
Hytner’s superb foray into Shakespeare shares the Olivier Theatre at the moment with the other outstanding production of my visit, a revival of the Harlem kitchen-sink drama “The Amen Corner” by Baldwin, author of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Notes of a Native Son.” (Director Howard Davies’s staging of Gorky’s pre-revolutionary “Children of the Sun,” in the Lyttleton, is another current marvel of ensemble performance.)
Anchored by Jean-Baptiste’s ferociously convincing performance as the lady preacher of a congregation of rigid, God-fearing hypocrites, this “Amen Corner” and its 17 actors (plus gospel choir) make a compelling argument for the work as an underappreciated classic. Like Alice Childress’s ’50s comedy-drama “Trouble in Mind” — illuminated smartly in Arena Stage’s 2011 production — “The Amen Corner,” written in 1954, reveals to audiences the beguiling breadth of material tackled by African American writers in the time just before Lorraine Hansberry’s consciousness-raising success with “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“The Amen Corner,” under Rufus Norris’s direction, evokes with a remarkable deftness the way the street-corner church introduces order and its opposite into the life of Jean-Baptiste’s Margaret. She lives in a flat under the chapel (in Ian MacNeil’s handsome design) with her sister Odessa (the solid Sharon D. Clarke) and son David (charismatic Eric Kofi Abrefa). But in serving as moral guide for her flock, Margaret loses her grip on church politics. Her demand that a church member (Donovan F. Blackwood) turn down a job as a driver for a sin-inviting liquor company emboldens a bitter dissident faction led by Sister Moore, a boiling kettle of envy who, in Cecilia Noble’s brilliant embodiment, spews venom everywhere in a tiny whistle of a voice.
Baldwin uses the tools of melodrama with acuity here, threading through his portrait the story of a broken home, and of the wayward musician-husband (Lucian Msamati) Margaret left and who is now dying of tuberculosis. Norris locates in the congregation’s gospel harmonies an exuberant mellifluousness that drives the evening; the play’s opening is given over to song and a sermon delivered by Jean-Baptiste with such fire it might send shivers up the spine of the staunchest non-believer.
Doubtless, the startling impact of “The Amen Corner” is heightened by a realization that a British cast is resurrecting the play with inimitable authority, so far from the city of its source. Then again, the National itself is nothing if not a reliable source of surprise.
Othello, The Amen Corner, Children of the Sun
at National Theatre. Tube stop: Waterloo. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
at Almeida Theatre. Tube stop: Angel. www.almeida.co.uk
at Trafalgar Studios. Tube stop: Charing Cross. www.trafalgar-studios.co.uk
at Shakespeare’s Globe. Tube stop: Blackfriars. www.shakespearesglobe.com
National Theatre Live, in Washington
at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/venues