I was back at the Globe for the hottest day of the year thus far, a strange contrast with the first Othello I saw, back on a damp and mizzy February day – the only link being that both were in Shakespearean venues. It was also my first time standing since the raising (and re-lowering) of the stage, and I’m happy to say that hanging off the edge is as glorious an experience as it used to be.
The reason I was back (and hadn’t decided just to eat the cost of the ticket and go home and eat ice cream instead) was because this Othello was the return of Mark Rylance to the Globe stage*, bringing with him a cast I was incredibly excited to see.
The staging first – I had plenty of time to admire it, I made sure I got there early**– and oh my heart almost broke to see the loss of the incredible hedgerows which has bedecked the stage for Two Noble Kinsmen. Instead, we had a big winged lion flag to leave you in no doubt that This Was Venice. I do love the confidence that meant that was the only set dressing, though – and even that came down when the action moved to Cyprus.
The costumes had a vaguely 20s or 30s vibes – the most gorgeous embroidered coats (I wouldn’t mind one for winter – although they must have been a chore to wear in that heat). The soldiers were in shades of blue and high-waisted trousers and the Doge’s people in bright red. Sheila Atim’s Emilia had a series of amazing gold catsuits, while Jessica Warbeck’s Desdemona, naturally, wore mainly white. The only problem I had was the combination of Iago’s red hat and Mark Rylance’s moustache, which made him look worryingly like Mario***.
On to the people inside the clothes. The star of this production for me was most definitely Andre Holland, brought over from the States with some deserved fanfare. It was an absolute pleasure to hear him use his native southern accent as Othello, and he seemed to get the tone of the Globe perfectly. For the first time I have seen Othello I could believe that he loved Desdemona all the way through the play, and that the explosive anger and rage he expressed came from his pain and torment at the betrayal he perceived (rather than just thinking he needed anger management sessions). He had the grace and the bearing to make the “Noble Moor” epithet feel entirely appropriate, and to make his death truly a tragic loss.
Mark Rylance’s Iago was… What? I don’t quite know. He used that wonderful conversational tone of his when plotting (although I believe they had cut down a number of his monologues so we got to spend less time with him), and had a halting, stuttering, hangdog manner when talking to Othello that sharpened up the deeper the plotting got and which made Iago feel more like a master improviser who enjoyed living on the edge than a deep schemer. His coaching of Roderigo got big laughs, as did every time someone called him “honest Iago” in the first half – in the second half, the appellation made us all wince. And then there was the violence – Iago’s cold-blooded murder of Roderigo and then of Emilia, were deeply and unexpectedly shocking (the collective gasp was probably audible the other side of the river) – seeming a little out-of-character for a man who had showed no real strong emotions, and indeed continued to show none as he killed his wife.
Steffan Donelly’s Roderigo was a slightly gawky, querulous popinjay, entirely out of place in the martial world of Othello’s Cyprus. Aaron Pierre (in his professional debut) as Cassio was fine indeed – a muscular, slightly swaggering type which made a suitable contrast with Iago (even if in the script Iago is the career soldier and Cassio is a mathematician), with a believable hint that he might well have liked Desdemona, and she him. Casting an actor of colour as Cassio really worked for me – it reinforced the bond between him and Othello, heightened the betrayal, and perhaps highlighted (in a similar way to the casting of a woman in the previous production I saw) quite why his reputation and his job were so important to him.
Sheila Atim and Jessica Warbeck as Emilia and Desdemona were a great pair, growing from wary strangerhood into a friendship which explained Emilia’s first complicity with and then striking denunciation of her husband – a bit longer with her practical sense and I go the feeling this very passionate and naïve Desdemona might have managed to work out what was going on and bring Othello back to his senses. The scene where they talk about adultery was particularly strong. The couples were intriguing – I had no trouble imaging what Desdemona saw in Othello, and could certainly stretch to his falling for her open emotions**** – I have always loved Othello’s summing up of their courtship, which seemed entirely apt for this couple:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
What on earth could have brought this Iago and Emilia together, though, I could not see. They were a very odd couple – with nonetheless a definite spark of chemistry – which did make me (for the first time) puzzle myself about their courtship.
Overall the whole tone of piece was one of restless movement – there was endless running around pillars at the start, and a wonderful storm on the way to Cyprus*****, as well as the running fight scenes and the energy you expect from a cast full of soldiers. But as the action moved on, the rough and tumble slowed down and turned to the stillness of the grave, drawing us in in unmistakeable Globe fashion. It was evident that we were in the hands of a director who knew how to play the space, and the audience, like a fiddle.
Taking of music – given Claire van Kampen’s background as a composer, as well as a director, I was expecting more than we had. But what there wasn’t in quantity, there absolutely was in quality – a fabulously raucous inn scene featured Iago with a banjo****** (and props to Catherine Bailey for her complete costume and character changes as both the Doge of Venice and Bianca) and a haunting version of Green Willow, sung acapella (and in harmony) by Jessica Warbeck and Sheila Atim. Just enough to bring the action into sharp relief.
All in all this was a clear-sighted production that struck right to the heart of the play – the best Othello (both man and show) I have seen so far.
* On which I don’t think I have ever actually seen him before – although I did see his splendidly creepy Richard III when it transferred to the West End.
** I also like to look around – and pity the poor sods who booked the expensive tickets in the upper circle and got there to find they were only ones in the whole theatre still in direct sunlight. Ouch.
*** I am not alone in thinking this – see https://twitter.com/RobbieHand/status/1024262817434808320 for a great illustration
**** Although I have NO IDEA how she kept it a secret from her father – unless he was just absolutely oblivious – which, let’s face it, is not unlikely…
***** And what fun were the ships through the crowd! I think they were wagons with masts – but they delivered the women to Cyprus in the most entertaining way possible…
****** Or possibly some form of portable lute.