Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Claire van Kampen
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
The last ten years or so can’t be said to have lacked for starry Othello productions on UK stages, whether it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor facing off with Ewan MacGregor at the Donmar, Clarke Peters and Dominic West in a high-Wire production at Sheffield Crucible, or Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear at the NT. Still, there’s something particularly exciting about the prospect of Mark Rylance returning to the theatre that he ran to play Iago opposite André Holland (of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and several stage Shakespeares in the US) in the title role. However, the results, in Claire van Kampen’s erratic production, don’t prove entirely ideal.
Part of the problem is the tendency of the Globe space to turn every play into a comedy, so that each instance of dramatic irony generates guffaws and even a line such as “Strangle her in her bed” is greeted with hearty laughter by some audience members. But that tendency is further exacerbated in van Kampen’s production via the farcical scampering around that occurs in its early stages.
Rylance is the principal offender here. He begins by speaking the lines at breakneck speed; his proficiency with the language means that (almost) every word is heard but, still, several vital utterances don’t have the weight of thought. Red-capped and nimble, Rylance tries out lots of interesting things in the performance but his Iago finally feels less mercurial than incoherent. Even before Iago’s soliloquies start Rylance seems to be acting more to the audience than to the other performers; that approach may be justified to a degree, but when he does start to get more of a relationship going with his fellow cast members it feels like too little too late. Ultimately Rylance neither succeeds in creating a disturbing presence here nor in making something really fresh out of the role.
Holland fares considerably better. In the early scenes, his stillness and poise are in such contrast to Rylance’s restless scurrying about that it’s a relief to look at and listen to him. (A very stylish coat helps, too.) He treats the language with ease and naturalness, his American accent accentuating Othello’s outsiderness, and he makes contact with the other actors while still being inclusive of the audience. In the second half, the performance becomes a bit more generalised, but Holland is by far the best reason for seeing this production.
There’s solid support from William Cubb as a Lear-ish Brabantio, from Aaron Pierre as a hot-headed Cassio, and from Badria Timimi and Catherine Bailey in the effectively re-gendered roles of Lodovica and the Doge of Venice. (Bailey also doubles as a sparky Bianca.) Jessica Warbeck is competent and sometimes touching as Desdemona, belatedly achieving the production’s most unsettling moment as she feels what she believes to be her husband’s conciliatory embrace turn into strangulation.
As Emilia, though, Sheila Atim underwhelms, giving a performance that doesn’t maximise the huge potential in this crucial role; the great “Willow” scene between her and Desdemona seems not so great here. This is particularly disappointing in a season that seeks to trace the character of Emilia through Shakespeare’s drama, leading to Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play about Emilia Bassano at the end of this month. Following her acclaimed turn in Girl from the North Country, it’s not too much of a surprise that van Kampen gives Atim a bonus song to sing, but the most sparkling thing about the actress here is her costume: two (rather inappropriate) gold outfits with gold earrings and a shock of gold hair to match. (This Emilia out-dresses her mistress.)
Otherwise, Jonathan Fensom’s design is serviceable rather than illuminating, which might be said of the production as a whole. Little thought seems to have gone into context or the exploration of certain relationships, so that promising aspects such as Iago and Emilia also being in a “mixed race” marriage don’t receive the attention that they merit. Rylance’s gabbling and some cuts to the text ensure that the evening is a pacy one, but the end result is to make the material look more like a clunky melodrama with comic elements than a searing examination of jealousy and manipulation.
Holland’s compelling performance aside, this is an unintense production that doesn’t dig deeply enough for the racial and sexual politics of the play – or, simply, its tragedy – to resonate as they should.
Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Simon Annand