Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 13 October 2018
More often than not I have found myself guilty of greeting any new Shakespeare production with thoughts of lofty concept. ‘What’s the take?’ I ask, for these plays are so reputed and productions so abundant that in order to distinguish oneself from the pack directors take to conceptualising The Bard, often running the risk of falling foul to gimmick.
Othello is no stranger to this. Take the RSC’s recent production featuring Lucian Msamati as Iago, or Jude Kelly’s decision to cast Patrick Stewart as Othello in a race-reversed production in Washington DC, or the National Theatre’s uprooting of the action to Iraq – no doubt these successful productions brought fresh ideas to the plate, and are memorable to even those not attuned to goings-on in theatre-land (I saw none of these productions, yet their reputation endures).
Thus, Claire van Kampen’s decision to eschew gimmick/concept is a bold statement in a production that generously places the focus firmly on plot and character, and pays dividends for it.
A typically understated Mark Rylance breezes through proceedings with deceptive ease, playing Iago as amiable, modest and informal. Van Kampen’s heavy cuts to Iago’s soliloquies ensure the play zips along at the pace of a mad-cap thriller, yet by keeping the audience in the dark regarding Iago’s schemes we are somewhat robbed of insight into the character and his shady motives – our culpability is instead invoked through Rylance’s banter with audience members (impishly pointing out the ‘crooked knaves’ among us and enthusiastically shaking hands with two very excited ladies beside us). So affable, and with such an infectious grin, and the fact that Rylance utters the line ‘I hate the moor’ with such banal flippancy, you’d be forgiven for completely missing Iago’s true motives.
Hence, come the final act when Rylance finally lets rip the sheer power within him comes as a shock to all. Previously anonymous and impotent in his boyish toy-soldier uniform, it feels like a personal affront when Rylance’s Iago, figuratively and literally, reveals his hidden strength as he effortlessly breaks Rodrigo’s (a fabulously coiffured Steffan Donnelly, decked in resplendent New Romantic style baroque) neck before hauling the dead body over his shoulder and carrying him off stage. Gasps echo around the auditorium – where did this come from? Who knew he had it in him? – Rylance plays the long game and we are all his pawns. The character is all the more chilling for this; Iago is not an evil and cartoonish megalomaniac, but a seemingly innocuous little man – a joker feigning blithe naivety, but he conceals a deadly indifference, weaponised with soldierly dexterity.
Perhaps due to this subtle portrayal of Iago, André Holland’s Othello, also, is touched by humility. Far more prosaic than we’ve come to expect of the character, Holland lacks what is often referred to as the ‘Othello music’, the pomp, eloquence and hyperbolic rhetoric that epitomises both his unique status and hubristic fall from grace. But this is not to say his portrayal is ineffective. Holland affords our hero with solemn dignity and an attractive sexuality. He and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona have a believable relationship, romantic and carnal, the sexual chemistry and ensuing jealousy simmers throughout.
Van Kampen has crafted what in other worlds could easily pass as a bedroom farce. Othello fancies Desdemona who may fancy Cassio (Aaron Pierre) who beds Bianca (Catherine Bailey) while Iago suspects Othello of shagging Emilia (Sheila Atim) while suggesting that he also harbours feelings for Desdemona… and so on. This comedic and somewhat superficial set up ensures the final scene maintains its shock factor – the mix-ups and double dealings are no longer funny when a string of bodies adorn the stage.
Following her acclaimed performance in Girl from the North Country, once again, Sheila Atim steals every scene. Without uttering a word, her mere presence demands all eyes upon her, and from a purely shallow perspective I could have watched a whole 2 hours of Atim strutting her stuff in those varying jumpsuits of gold. She speaks with what I can only describe as a clarity of soul, making Emilia’s words echo with a banality that is poignant in its honesty. Her ‘wives do fall’ speech that closes Act 4 is a highlight, as is her reaction to Desdemona’s death – in fact, I’d go as far to say that it is Atim’s performance in the finale that creates the emotional electricity one craves from tragedy.
As van Kampen clearly allows the language and performances speak for themselves, her stamp on the production is evident in the lively and colourful movement and musicality of the piece. As one might expect, van Kampen’s music is a high point, from the revelries held in Cyprus lead by a mandolin playing Iago, to the simple harmonies of the mournful Willow song. The concluding dance duet is a lovely play on the masque and dumbshow traditions.
While van Kampen doesn’t bring anything new to the play, hers is a solid and entertaining production that will be rightly remembered for its performances as opposed to any theatrical gimmick or zeitgeist-y politicism. Rylance and Atim in particular give remarkable performances that will linger in the mind due to their subtlety and conviction, while van Kampen excels in hearty musical interludes and juxtaposing the everyday joie de vivre with terrifying sobriety.