William Shakespeare’s popular revenge tragedy, Othello, forms part of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s summer season. This year, Michelle Terry takes over the reins as the new Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, after Emma Rice’s unfortunate departure. Terry’s debut season is packed with Shakespeare’s most popular plays and also sees Claire Van Kampen return to direct Othello. Van Kampen has an illustrious history with the Globe theatre as the Director of Music, having composed music for over 50 productions.
In addition to directing several productions, she also wrote the critically acclaimed Farinelli and the King for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, before its transfer to the West End and Broadway. Othello also has Van Kampen making another welcome collaboration with her husband, Mark Rylance, to bring a unique perspective to a much performed play. This collaborative experience speaks volumes in Othello as Rylance steps forward to play Shakespeare’s most despised villain, Iago.
The casting of Mark Rylance as Iago is a masterstroke. Rylance’s Iago is a unique blend of understated subtlety. Mark Rylance is a naturally likeable, genuinely nice person with a softly spoken voice. He is irresistibly charming and constructs his character to be the epitome of “honest Iago“. Rylance’s charm equally captivates the audience, in addition to the characters on stage. During his soliloquies, he teases the audience, building a rapport that subconsciously hoodwinks them into becoming entirely complicit in his plot. The audience are pawns in his game, just as Othello is.
Rylance’s Iago remains charming, likeable, funny and endearing throughout the majority of the play. He rattles through his dialogue to make it appear that he is acting off the cuff, rather than having any true malevolent motive. Rylance makes jokes, plays the mandolin, naturally repeats and stumbles over his words, and has instinctive mannerisms, such as wiping his moustache with his handkerchief. He appears on the surface a genuinely human, caring character. When presenting Othello with ‘suspicions’ that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, Rylance’s Iago honestly looks upset to be the bearer of bad news. When Othello doubts him, Iago appears to be genuinely offended that his friend would doubt his integrity.
When Iago’s façade is thrown aside during the play’s climax, and his actions have gone too far for justification; it is a complete shock to the audience to see Iago’s true colours. As he brutally breaks Roderigo’s neck, Iago’s physical strength and hidden malice are revealed, causing the audience to literally gasp with shock. This results in the audience feeling betrayed and complicit in Iago’s actions. You feel like you have been fooled and played, like Othello. The audience feel responsible for everything that is happening, and helpless to stop it.
Knowing that we were also bewitched by Iago’s charm makes the audience feel true empathy for Othello. Full credit needs to be given to Rylance for this accomplished performance as he makes Iago’s character even more puzzling. His motives are more ambiguous than they have ever been, and the audience, like Othello, are left “Perplexed in the extreme” and bewildered as to why Iago committed these horrendous deeds. Mark Rylance presents an exquisitely multi-layered, subtle, and unique approach to playing Iago.
“And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give, and honest”
Likewise, American actor André Holland gives an outstanding performance as Othello. Casting an American as the ill-fated Moor may be controversial to some, but Holland speaks Shakespeare’s language beautifully and is the best Othello that I have seen. His passionate devotion to Jessica Warbeck‘s Desdemona early in the play is infectious.
Holland and Warbeck perfectly render their characters’ innocent adoration of each other. It is a relationship that is so natural, it feels like first love. There is no wonder that Iago’s poisonous accusations have such an effect on Othello. It is easy to see how the smallest doubt would have such a huge effect on somebody so utterly besotted. Holland’s slip into jealousy and torment is similarly believable and is truly heart-breaking to watch. I have seen many productions of Othello and each time I think Othello is an idiot for being so easily fooled. Holland made me understand Othello’s character and feel a deep sympathy for Othello that I have never experienced before. His mortification of being led into jealousy and of killing Desdemona was truly tragic. The fact that he managed to present Othello as a genuinely tragic figure, with multiple helicopters flying overhead during his death scene, deserves the highest praise.
You can’t discuss Othello without discussing the important issues that Shakespeare’s play raises with regards to race. These debates are centuries old, yet feel outdated in the multicultural world we now live in. Van Kampen’s production masterfully sidelines these debates by creating the most diverse casting of Othello that I have seen and proving that Othello isn’t the only Shakespearean character a black actor can play.
With Sheila Atim playing Emilia and Aaron Pierre playing Cassio, it is refreshing to see a production of Othello where Othello isn’t the only black character. This completely removes the 400 year old notion that Iago’s main motive is racism. Iago’s soliloquies were also carefully edited to remove a lot of the racist language, as was Emilia’s tirade against Othello; “the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!”.
It is Othello’s American accent, rather than his skin colour that marks him out as a ‘foreigner’. In addition to further blurring Iago’s motives, it gives the production a modern feel, despite its authentic setting. Instead of raising issues of race, Van Kampen’s production shines a spotlight as to how talented the actors are. Sheila Atim is a tour-de-force as a bold, resolute Emilia, who completely dominates the final scene. Aaron Pierre gives a blistering stage debut as Cassio who is naturally appealing, rather than being portrayed as a flirtatious ladies’ man.
As I mentioned in my review of Hamlet, the Globe Theatre is a spectacular theatre. Being an authentic reproduction of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, it has a magical quality about it. There is nowhere better in the world to watch Shakespeare. As usual, the music at the Globe is wonderful, played on authentic instruments. I am glad to see that Van Kampen removed the usually awkward “cannikin clink, clink” song and replaced it with a joyous, salsa-esque dance. The entire cast looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Desdemona’s mournful Willow Song was also harmoniously sung by both Sheila Atim and Jessica Warbeck, cementing Emilia and Desdemona’s love and friendship.
The costumes were also magnificent, even with Mark Rylance resembling Mario in his red cap. Othello’s richly embroidered jacket was gorgeous, and the dresses of Desdemona and Emilia were stunning, particularly the striking gold dress she wears.
This is a wonderfully unique production of Othello that has drawn the crowds because of Mark Rylance’s appearance as Iago. Rylance will doubtlessly split the crowds too, with his likeable, charming, “Honest Iago“.