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06/20/2013 03:49 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

First Nighter: London Consumer Report on "Othello," "Strange Interlude," August Strindberg, Peter Nichols

If you don't mind an Othello (Adrian Lester) and an Iago (Rory Kinnear) policing Cyprus in desert fatigues and a Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) who arrives in denim slacks to defend her new husband against her father's rage, then you're likely to think Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre's Olivier revival of William Shakespeare's Othello about jealousy, revenge and compromised reputations is marvelous.
Even the clichéd depiction of contemporary military dress code works extremely well when Iago contrives to get Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) drunk so that Othello will dismiss him from the duties Iago had hoped to take on. Soldiers becoming increasingly rowdy in the barracks rec room certainly look and sound like the real thing possibly going on today in Cyprus and other tinderbox enclaves around the globe.
What truly works is the high-octane performing from the time Iago enlists Roderigo (Tom Robertson)--furious that Desdemona has dropped him for Othello--to aid in his single-minded vengeance to the final scene when a marriage bed is laden with three corpses.
Lester's Othello looks to be a first-rate commander who eventually proves less commanding of his emotions than he or Desdemona believed him to be. He makes totally credible the gradual loss of confidence in his young wife's fidelity. (She did deceive her father in choosing secretly to marry the Moor.) Shakespeare's subtle writing is, needless to say, a great help here.
Kinnear is just as convincing as a husky, single-minded Iago, incensed not only because he's been passed over for promotion but because he chooses to believe the rumor that his wife Emilia (Lyndsey Marshal), giving a tough, broken-hearted turn) has been bedded by Othello. The rest of Hytner's cast is impeccable, as they watch the tragedy unfolding on Vicki Mortimer's complex version of a contemporary army fort with thick walls, chain link fences and minimally furnished meeting rooms.
(FYI: Not only is Lester playing Othello here, but last season he played 19th-century Othello interpreter Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, which comes to St. Ann's Warehouse later this year.)
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Most theater knowledgeables will tell you Eugene O'Neill wrote only one comedy: Ah, Wilderness! Turns out they're wrong. The National Theatre is now demonstrating the usually dark-browed and generally acknowledged dad of serious American theater wrote two comedies. The second--actually the first because it preceded Ah, Wilderness!--is Strange Interlude, now on the Lyttelton stage in repertory with Maxim Gorky's Children of the Sun.
Yes, yes, I know. O'Neill didn't think he was at work on a comedy when writing Strange Interlude in 1928. He thought he was doing something radically different. With the myriad asides the characters deliver, he was declaring that what people necessarily say to one another isn't necessarily what they're thinking.
At the time, he couldn't have been more somber about illustrating how dissembling damages lives profoundly. He relays his staunch Strange Interlude statement through the tale of young semi-flapper and man magnet Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff, gotten up to resemble Zelda Fitzgerald). Pursued by three men--prissy Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards, gotten up to resemble O'Neill), manly Edmund "Ned" Darrell (Darren Pettie), buffoonish Sam Evans (Jason Watkins)--Nina marries one of them, raises a son by another and strings the third along for three and a half hours.
Sadly now, the participants' interminable revelations about crossed purposes taps the funny bone. Worse, O'Neill's script is so difficult for actors to make real that their attempts come across as hugely deficient. Those caught in the trap--with Simon Godwin valiantly trying to guide them--are all known to be reliably proficient, but they don't pass for that under these constraints.
The best contribution to the sorry enterprise is Soutra Gilmour's set. The first half of the work takes place in a Frank Lloyd Wright type home that from scene to scene twirls on a turntable. The second half features a yacht stagehand-stevedores pull in, as well as a pier over a beach. Amazing.
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Coincidentally, some of what O'Neill wrought with Strange Interlude--that's if you don't consider Elizabethan asides as an earlier form of internal expressions--is on display in Peter Nichols's 1981 Passion Play at the Duke of York's.
This one also concerns infidelity, only in Nichols's piece, the infidelity is real. Jim (Oliver Cotton) and Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) are happily married until much younger Kate (Annabel Scholey) throws herself at Jim after the death of her longtime lover. Forget that as Nichols introduces him, Jim doesn't seem the type to respond. He does, though, and the rest of the play--with Nell (Samantha Bond) as Eleanor's ever-present inner nag, and James (Owen Teale), as Jim's--follows the collapse of what initially appeared to be an impervious union.
Though along the way, the going gets long-winded (and sound designer Fergus O'Hare lays pretty heavy on the histrionic underscore--or overscoring--when Jim and Eleanor listen intently and symbolically to Bach's St. Matthew Passion), the dismaying denouement is completely believable. David Leveaux, who's previously boned up on this kind of marriage-on-the-rocks screed by helming Harold Pinter's Betrayal, helps plenty.
The Bach oratorio, by the way, is only one of the signals Nichols gives that ailing spirituality is at the heart of the Jim-Eleanor exhausted-resources bond. Another is a painting of Jesus's passion that sits facing the audience through a good part of the couple's ordeal. Jim, you see, is a restorer who works at home. Yet, another clue is the finale Christmas party where not birth but a spiritual death takes place. Then, needless to say, there's the giveaway title. No question that Nichols makes his point.
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"Love and hate, arm in arm," Alice (Linda Marlowe) comments tartly in August Strindberg's Dances of Death, which Howard Brenton has both trimmed and extended at the Gate. What he's redacted is the familiar Dance of Death in which Alice and Edgar (Michael Pennington) attack each other with an alloyed hatred concealing a steely love that confounds those around them, notably impressionable friend Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft).
That's now the first part of the opus, with the second half--much less frequently seen--unfolding two years later to the sound of even more of designer George Dennis's crashing waves. Here, Edgar and Alice's headstrong daughter Judith (Eleanor Wyld) taunts Kurt's son Allan (Edward Franklin) and a handy lieutenant (Richard Beanland). Edgar gets his jollies tormenting them all.
Strindberg unashamedly believed in the milk of humor hatred, and milks it for all its worth, with director Tom Littler abetting him effectively. The playwright's misanthropy ultimately tests credulity, but it's forever something to behold in eye-popping awe.

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