LONDON — God save the king — of theaters. By virtue of its extraordinary range and acumen, the National Theatre, the 50-year-old company that since 1976 has operated out of a bulky modern complex on the south bank of the Thames, can stake a legitimate claim to being the world’s most influential purveyor of English-speaking drama.
Founded by Laurence Olivier and headed in the past decade by Nicholas Hytner, the National is the originator of so much work of distinction that listing it all would consume the entirety of this article. Its contributions range from “Angels in America” to “War Horse ,” from “Arcadia” to “The History Boys” to “The Madness of King George.” Its exports to Washington have included the fine “Phèdre” with Helen Mirren that in 2009 sold out Sidney Harman Hall in an exclusive U.S. engagement.
Like any great company, it’s harbored memorable misfires; a musical years ago based on the life of actress Jean Seberg is easily among the worst I’ve ever seen, and I recall gnashing my teeth through a stultifying revival of Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair.” But in a return to London this month for a week of theatergoing, I found fresh evidence of the National’s artistic primacy, in three stirring productions in the company’s rotating repertory: Maxim Gorky’s 1905 “Children of the Sun,” James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and, most captivating, a new “Othello” starring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester.
I took in some other productions of note, including an enjoyable “The Tempest” with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan at Shakespeare’s Globe, the re-creation of an Elizabethan theater that’s a 15-minute walk along the Thames from the National; and Simon Russell Beale in an energetic revival at Trafalgar Studios of “The Hothouse” — a minor entry in the Harold Pinter catalogue, made worthwhile by Beale and his nimble castmates.
Peter Morgan’s West End hit, “The Audience,” turns out to be merely an exercise in royalty-worship, with the redoubtable Mirren magnetically embodying Queen Elizabeth II, an extension of her Oscar-winning turn in “The Queen.”
The only significant disappointment occurred in an evening at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, where playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s all-too-facile drama “Chimerica” squanders a prime opportunity for insight into the abrasive crosscurrents of economics and politics between China and the United States. Although it has been well received here, the three-hour play, to American ears, is sloppy in language and cultural references and in desperate need of a rewrite.
The National has extended its global reach through National Theatre Live, a series of live broadcasts of stage productions from the National and other theaters onto movie screens around the world. (This month, the NT Live airing of “The Audience” broke box-office records for the enterprise.) Still, of course, a seat in the Olivier or the Lyttleton, the National’s two largest spaces, is by far the best way to experience the National’s capabilities.
And with Hytner’s new “Othello,” you’re exposed to all of the company’s rich imaginative reserves. In this case, it’s in the realm of the classics that it excels, in a production set in a contemporarily militarized environment: Shakespeare meets “The Hurt Locker.” Its specialness resides in a precision of casting, the ideal balance struck through Lester’s Othello, a man of hair-trigger volatility, and Kinnear’s icy, single-minded Iago.
Short-circuiting many treatments of this popular tragedy are portrayals of Othello as impenetrably worthy, a soldier who’s almost robotically noble, and thus difficult to relate to; his pivot into paranoia, under Iago’s vile tutelage, can seem impossibly sudden. Maybe our fascination with Iago — to my mind, Shakespeare’s ultimate villain — complicates matters. Though he supplies multiple motives for whipping Othello into a vengeful frenzy, his confessional relationship with his audience makes him the more transparent, and seductive, of the two. (At times, with his articulation of his scheme, Iago seems even to be occupying a playwright’s chair.)
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.
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