The audience was very persuaded by this production on press night for Othello, but as with the Hamlet earlier this year, the overall effect was more muted than it should be because the ambitions of all concerned were too modest. By playing it as a fast-moving narrative that cumulates into a harrowing tragedy and missing out the key psychological battles at its heart, it remained a two-dimensional play, the kind that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have written, rather than the troubling, knotty and difficult experience the text provides for.
Othello has not received many productions at The Globe, though it was last given an outing the Wanamaker Theatre in 2017. Ellen McDougall’s production then benefited from the conspiratorial intimacy of that space, but loss coherence through misguided alterations to the text and casting. This new production in the main space, directed by Claire Van Kampen, likewise contains some memorable performances and moments of insight, but also suffers from the same lack of confidence in the sufficient power of the original and the same desire to make contemporary points for their own sake rather than let them emerge from the texture of the play itself.
In the programme Van Kampen states explicitly that she is aiming for a two-hour running time and a ‘heavy cut’ focused on ‘some rhetoric-heavy comment, and also some of Iago’s revelations of what he plans to do.’ The intention is to retain an element of surprise ahead of the searing final scenes. It is surely quite possible to retain tension and fascination without abbreviating the text substantially, and moreover the naturalistic approach adopted to the text that remains does scant justice to the music of the verse and results in poor, shapeless handling of the text by almost everyone, barring the players from an older generation with a different training.
There are still some slight merits to this approach. The play moves swiftly onwards at all points and the there is always something or someone worth watching, making full use of the huge stage space available. With veterans of the Globe such as Van Kampen and Rylance in charge there is also plenty of funny back-and-forth with the audience too, though this does sap and detract from the tensions of the central engagements between Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Emilia.
There are suggestions of a specific setting that do not ever fully resolve. A large banner depicting St Mark hangs at the outset, and richly decorated costumes abound, but they never settle into a definite period: high collars and braid from the Napoleonic Empire period retreat into Renaissance drapery gestures in the Doge’s Council; Rylance’s costume suggests a time-warp into the Battle of Gettysburg, while Emilia inhabits cat-suits from the 1960s. This diffuseness is typical of a production that contains a profusion of ideas and initiatives that never acquire the sharp definition of a governing concept. There is strangely little music in the production too, which is odd when a composer is directing. That said, the setting of the Willow Song, is apt, poignant and delicate, and an important part of the gathering strength of the final scenes.
A lot then rests on the central performances if this production is to succeed, and here too the results are uneven and paradoxical. The evening is at its best in the ensemble sections, whether in Venice or Cyprus. I have never seen the drinking scene in which Iago contrives Cassio and Roderigo to come to blows done better. This has a cumulative power, in which joshing turns nasty, and quickly too, that is much more plausible than is usual. Its success owes a lot to the tone of touchy insecurity that Aaron Pierre has already developed as Cassio, and even more to Rylance’s Iago, who suddenly channels the shade of Rooster Byron to alarming effect.
Elsewhere, in the key monologues and dialogues of seduction and deception the results are more uneven. As Desdemona, Jessica Warbeck chooses to play the role in a much more submissive and plaintive vein than is usual nowadays. This makes her very affecting in her final moments, and she has a real connection with Sheila Atim’s worldly-wise Emilia; but her disempowered, merely bemused reaction when Othello turns against her seems hard to explain or feel empathy for. Atim is wonderfully fierce in the truth-telling moments of the final act but otherwise is left fairly disengaged from the action, and we learn little of the dynamic of her marriage to Iago, which must surely be crucial in any production. This is all the more odd when a whole play devoted to the significance of the character of Emilia to Shakespeare is scheduled to close this season.
Any production of this play revolves around the effectiveness of the choices made in respect of Othello and Iago. The evocation of jealousy can be done in many different ways, but all of them at some level have to involve a strong element of plausible seduction on Iago’s part and a predisposition to suspicion on Othello’s. Unfortunately, despite isolated moments of telling insight from both Rylance and André Holland, this is not where we find ourselves.
Holland has a natural stage authority and his Southern accent neatly references his status as an outsider in Venetian society. However, he looks too young and free from engrained cares of state and war for the role, and has clearly received little guidance in how to handle the text. As a result, his gathering rage was too often incoherent and insufficiently projected through the rhetoric that Shakespeare deliberately provides as a shaping vehicle. His best scenes came in the second half where he relaxed into the role sufficiently to take his time and the let text and accumulation of circumstance do the work for him.
Rylance’s portrayal of Iago is, you would expect from such an actor, meticulously thought-through; but it does not go beyond being a sum of its various parts. The first point to note is how frenetically busy he is around the stage, which suggests both his controlling zeal but also the spirit of improvisation that supports Rylance’s reading of the character’s scheming. This is perfectly plausible as an interpretation, but it is undermined in the first-half at least by rushed, almost gabbled delivery of the text, that was not entirely audible, and a continuously off-hand, informal and apologetic reading of the insinuations planted in the Othello’s mind. It was simply hard to explain the immediate acceptance of the case by the Moor when presented in such an unpersuasive fashion.
At the end Iago is reduced to a feeble, crumpled creature, an example of the ‘banality of evil’, concealed hitherto only by consummate ingenuity. That is surely the right ending, but the psychological ingenuity beforehand needs to be formidable and it was missing. Perhaps Rylance did not want to repeat elements of his consummately silky and Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell, which already demonstrated how readily this part lies within his range. But absent those qualities, the central dynamic of this drama did not convince.
We should not forget some excellent supporting work form other actors. William Chubb made much more of the unsympathetic role of the possessive father, Brabantio, than we normally see, and Catherine Bailey did sterling contrasted work as a blousy Bianca and a terse Doge. Steffan Donnelly’s Roderigo was much more genial than usual, but again it was not clear why he should continuously fall for Iago’s explanations; and Aaron Pierre’s Cassio was a convincing portrayal of a volatile soldier, all the more telling because of his obvious and genuine attraction to Desdemona. It was a valuable idea to amalgamate some of the smaller roles and turn them into a Chorus that included two dancers. At the end in particular this added a telling resonance of Greek tragedy.
The audience was very persuaded by this production on press night, but as with the Hamlet earlier this year, the overall effect was more muted than it should be because the ambitions of all concerned were too modest. By playing it as a fast-moving narrative that cumulates into a harrowing tragedy and missing out the key psychological battles at its heart, it remained a two-dimensional play, the kind that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have written, rather than the troubling, knotty and difficult experience the text provides for.