August 5, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Othello @ Shakespeare’s Globe
I saw one of my first ever Shakespeare productions at the Globe, The Tempest with Vanessa Redgrave starring as Prospero. The Globe is somewhat smaller than I remembered, but still brings with it that sense of occasion. You don’t just go to the Globe to see the play, but to have the experience of jostling in the yard with all the tourists and school groups, of choosing your spot and admiring the faux-Elizabethan trappings (including ye olde fire exit signs). It’s a beautiful space, and a refreshing change to bypass the usual conventions of the theatre, particularly in regard to noise and movement during the performance.
I wasn’t here for a tour, of course, but to see the Globe’s first production of Othello since its opening. I’ll get a quick rant out of the way here- a big fuss has been made in the media about Eamonn Walker being the first black actor to play Othello at the Globe. Well, of course! It’s the first production of Othello at the Globe, and of course black men didn’t act at the original theatre. You might as well say that Zoe Tapper is the first woman to play Desdemona at the Globe, or Lorraine Burroughs the first female Emilia (here Aemilia). Interviews with Walker have seen him speaking solemnly about the responsibility of being the first actor of colour in the part at the theatre, but I’m with Michael Billington – in an age of colour-blind casting, Billington points out that no British white actor has had a crack at Othello on home turf in over 25 years. I understand the responsibility of David Oyelowo in 2001 being the first black man to play a British king in a history play, but the part of Othello has been the exclusive property of black actors on the British stage (apart from once, in Munchner Kammerspiele’s production in the Complete Works Festival) for longer than I’ve been alive, and it’s hardly news anymore.
To the play. Wilson Milam’s production is a sturdy affair, using the Globe to great advantage, but (and this isn’t necessarily a negative thing) it is entirely traditional. With bare stage, Elizabethan costumes and a completely straightforward interpretation of the text, it was almost an exhibition piece, designed to demonstrate a traditional Shakespeare done well.
The acting was variable. Walker’s Othello was passable, but played up to racial stereotypes too much for my comfort. Zoe Tapper was decent as Desdemona until her final moments- hammering on the door and screaming to be let out, she was carried to the bed and smothered by Othello’s arm horrifically until she finished flapping, yet somehow managed to revive so effectively that she could sit up and hold a loud conversation with Aemilia.
The comedy was provided primarily by Sam Crane’s Rodorigo, a foppish and melodramatic fool who worked the audience well, yet still provided the best sympathy of the afternoon as Iago stabbed him. The Clown’s role was considerably beefed up here, giving him an ongoing spat with the onstage musicians that bookended the play.
Tim McInnerny’s Iago was in the Bob Hoskins mould, a balding and lecherous villain with a cracked voice and London accent, making him deeply unpleasant rather than calculatedly evil. He was good, if not revelatory, and used the intimate space to good effect, bringing the audience into his schemes as he thought them out.
It was a worthy Othello, if not a revolutionary one. Apart from Othello’s method of killing himself (with a crossbow) I saw nothing new here, and struggled to remain engaged with the action throughout, despite an energetic tavern scene and a genuinely tense finale. It’s the kind of production that teachers would be very happy to bring their class too, but I would have appreciated a little more innovation and some stronger performances from the leads.