‘If Rylance is what people came for, then Sheila Atim’s performance is surely what they stay for’: OTHELLO – Shakespeare’s Globe ★★★

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Shakespeare’s Globe, London until 13 October 2018
Guest reviewer: Ben Blackmore

I have never seen Othello before — either on stage or film — so I wondered, as I took my perch in the sweaty tinderbox of the Globe on a sultry summer’s evening, how this would affect my ability to review. The micro-aggressions fuelled by the Globe’s whittled stall seating are hard to overlook. During the Cypriot storm sequence a lady sitting behind me fainted, her head bowling into my back.

The first thing that became clear to me, once I recovered from the blow, is that we need to talk about costumes. The dress code for Othello is, for the most part, a bizarre, unwieldy marriage of military-issue boots and red berets, with rococo-finished ceremonial dress. The feel, in the opening salvo, is that of a band of mercenary bellhops on bank holiday. It’s not clear whether these people are about to launch an offensive or misplace your luggage.

And who thought it was a good idea to put Mark Rylance, playing Iago, in an outfit — jaunty cap on an angle, sad droopy moustache — that makes him look less like Shakespeare’s super villain and more like Super Mario.

Yet the first act garners a surprising amount of laughs, from Rylance with his deft patter, but particularly from Andre Holland, in the title role, inventing moments of comedy where before there were none.

Claire van Kampen’s production is accelerated; rapidity moving past alacrity into a sort of ‘can’t stop to chat or I’ll miss my train’ mode where the players are constantly coming and going, dashing off the stage only to return to finish their lines moments later.

This frenzy yields an oddly comic traction, as many lines are played for laughs or occasionally parcelled out to the audience for panto points. Reconciling this larky mood with a slow build towards tragedy proves increasingly elusive.

Mr Holland, of Moonlight fame, acquits himself well as Othello, playing the part in his native Alabama drawl and providing a much needed sense of cool collectedness. That said, I thought he fared better in the opening half, when he was mollifying the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy rather than succumbing to it.

As to Mark Rylance, the last time he trod the boards here, he was largely suspended above them, being flown around in a Beckettian rendition of The Tempest. .  This production, directed by his wife and markedly removed from overwrought conceptualization, at first feels like a safer option. And yet, even by my novice standards, it was possible to see that the plum role of Iago had been taken to strange new places. Flying out of  the traps in scene one, Sir Mark is all diagonals: stealing slyly across the stage, slicing between pillars like a bishop on the chessboard. His movements all begin at the hip and, compounded by the  flying monkey bellhop costume, he vacillates from cheeky chappie to hyper-accelerated cartoon plumber.

If Rylance is what people came for, then Sheila Atim as Emilia surely be what one stays for. I can’t recall an actress of such ineffable magnetism, for whom language feels superfluous.She alone manages to weather the sartorial storm of baffling costume changes, which send her through an increasingly bombastic array of catsuits.

That she imbues the role with understated, devastating potency while wearing what looks to be an archive rive gauche Yves Saint Laurent mustard onesie, is testament to how beguiling a force she is; Emilia barely speaks for her first scene, but the way she moves expresses far more than words — and, unfortunately, with those costumes makes everyone else looks like bizarre off-cuts from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Lacking a concerted build-up, the crucial strangling scene feels less savage than sterile. In her programme notes, Van Kampen said: ‘We felt we really wanted the audience to have most of their energy intact for the tragedy that happens right at theend of the play.’ However the trading of suspense for surprise is a gamble which ultimately doesn’t pay off.

Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.