August 5, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Othello @ Shakespeare’s Globe

A lot of the commentary around Claire van Kampen’s new production of Othello at the Globe has concerned the laughter being aroused by the production; and, as ever, this commentary roughly takes two different angles. Is the laughter part of a company strategy that is deliberately mining the comedy in the play? Or are the Globe audience responding ‘inappropriately’, in the way that critics often accuse that audience of doing?

I’m frustrated constantly by the snobbery that gets projected onto the Globe audience, especially when one of the pleasures of that theatre is the rawness of a relatively uninhibited audience response. But at yesterday’s matinee I did initially find myself at odds with much of the performed collective response; a line like ‘An old black ram is tupping your white ewe’ just isn’t funny to me, and nothing about Mark Rylance’s delivery of it brought a smile to my face. As the production went on, however, I found cause to rethink what laughter is doing in a play like Othello.

In the hands of this ensemble, the dramatic irony on which the play hinges was audacious. Rylance’s particular skill as an actor, and one which translated perfectly to Iago, is the ability to seem like he’s making it up as he goes along; it was easy to see why no-one would ever expect this tremulous, heart-on-sleeve, open Iago of deceit. No-one lies like Rylance, and when he opened his arms and raised his shoulders for ‘I .. I know not that’ in response to Othello telling him the handkerchief was a gift, the performance of ignorance was breathtaking in its brazenness. Is this playing for laughs? No, I think not; there’s nothing funny about the consummate performance of a lie at this point. Yet I found myself laughing anyway, a laugh that for me was a breath away from a gasp of disbelief. Laughter isn’t just an expression of joy; it’s a defensive mechanism against horror, defusing the laugher’s tension to enable them to continue to engage. Otherwise, the horror is too much.

I can only speak for my own reactions, of course, but I dwell on this in order to try and understand how the comedy and defusion of tension interacted with my understanding of this play. It’s been over a decade since I last saw Othello at the Globe, and without the affordances of light and score to manipulate audience reaction, I think the space helps release the play’s audacity, humour and liveliness without the need for a production to play it as comedy. What was telling about both play and production is that, when it wanted to be serious, it did so effortlessly. As André Holland walked forward at the start of the final scene and intoned ‘It is the cause’, the Globe was more profoundly silent than I’ve ever heard it, suggesting to me a company in unusual control of the space’s dynamics.

As one would expect from a production directed by and starring two of the Globe’s longest-serving alumni, Othello made excellent use of the Globe space. The production began with Rylance’s Iago and Steffan Donnelly’s Roderigo figure-of-eighting around the stage pillars – a strategy also used by Michelle Terry in Hamlet, only more effective here as it evoked the journey of the two men to a new destination – before ‘arriving’ at the tiring house to shout up to William Chubb’s Brabantio while Iago concealed himself beneath the balcony. Later, on arrival in Cyprus, the characters arrived on carts representing ships that parted the audience in the pit as they approached the stage, one of which remained there for most of the scene before Iago finally opened a hatch to let a spluttering Roderigo out. Iago acted as stage manager throughout the performance, by far the most mobile of characters as he set up scene after scene, moved flags and beer bottles alike, and ensured everyone was where he wanted them.

The two worlds of Venice and Cyprus were innovatively distinguished through a gendered division. In Venice, the Doge (Catherine Bailey), Lodovica (Badria Timimi) and other nobles were women, their red robes demarcating their authority. In Cyprus, by contrast, Othello was in charge and a distinction was made between the male soldiers and the female townsfolk who revelled with the new arrivals. The production toyed with the idea that Cyprus was an environment which brought out the toxic masculinity of the men, from Cassio’s drunknness to the group condemnation of Bianca to, ultimately, Othello’s public displays of violence. Lodovica’s shocked ‘This would not be believed in Venice’ when Othello brutally slapped Desdemona was a pointed reminder of how far things had deteriorated, contrasting with her notions of what was acceptable in a civilised society.

Cyprus was frequently rambunctious. The drinking scene was a party between the locals and the soldiers, with high-energy dancing and a lot of drunkenness. Aaron Pierre’s Cassio was dragged along in the atmosphere, stoked by Iago dancing for his life, and his guilt hangover immediately after was deeply felt. The Cypriot women had a surprising amount of agency for characters with very few lines, and Bailey’s Bianca ran rings around the somewhat hapless Cassio, leaving him barely a chance to defend himself over the handkerchief. The breakdown of discipline on the island was most pointed out when Lodovica arrived, but Iago had been able to use the relative disorder to his advantage for some time before that.

Holland’s Othello stood out against the partying as a quiet, dignified presence. His command of the Globe was exceptional, his speeches not grandstanding but entirely captivating. He was characterised by restraint – his epileptic fit, for instance, was merely him kneeling and holding his hand against his head, and his growing jealousy saw his reserve only subtly breaking down at first. He was always conscious of self-presentation; after he slapped Desedemona, there was a look of horror on his face as he realised what he had done, before he doubled down in his ice-cold condemnation of Desdemona as one who could turn and turn again. Jessica Warbeck played beautifully off him, she herself showing dignity throughout but responding with free emotion and defiance when pushed. Their relationship had been lived in public from the start – they kissed openly on arrival in Cyprus, reveling in the cheers they got – and watching it unravel in public was heartbreaking.

The production’s investment in Desdemona and Othello’s relationship did lead to what I felt was a surprising buy-in to Othello’s version of events at the play’s end. The murder scene was played brutally and cruelly – Desdemona was allowed a moment’s reprieve and even happiness as Othello embraced her from behind on the bed and kissed her several times, and she laughed in relief, thinking the danger was over, before he stiffened his arm around her neck and held her down, she thrashing for what seemed like hours before finally lying still. Despite the brutality of the murder, Othello had a dignified end and was permitted his final embrace and kiss of Desdemona’s body. Then, as the company (led by Sheila Atim) sang a song (‘When will I see you again?’ if I remember correctly), two dancers dressed as Othello and Desdemona performed a beautiful ballet. The emphasis on aestheticised tragic love seemed to offer rather more vindication for Othello than I was inclined to afford him at that point.

The ensemble was characterised by nuanced performances across the board, perhaps none so much as Atim’s Emilia. Her presence was felt long before she began making an impact on the narrative, offering a foil for Desdemona throughout the early Cyprus scenes, and participating enthusiastically in the revels. She had a surprisingly playful relationship with Iago, not entirely knowing what to make of him when she gave him the handkerchief, but laughing quietly with him regardless. But in the willow scene both performers shone; Emilia balanced quiet care in her brushing of Desdemona’s hair with a dogged insistence on women’s agency that attempted to bolster Desdemona’s confidence; Desdemona stuck to her insistence on virtue, but her voice quavered on the words of the song. The close connection between the two came across strongly in such subtleties.

There’s a lot about the production that I feel remained problematic. At a practical level, as someone standing at the sides quite far upstage, I was frequently frustrated by two-dimensional blocking that had many of the characters in a scene standing in a horizontal line; by the occasional muddled entrance/exit where actors left through the same door that other actors were entering through; and by the closed curtains on the enormous stage bed that deprived me of much of Emilia’s performance in the final scene. And on an interpretive level, I felt there was much more the production could have done to critique the cultures of violence that led to the final acts. But as a vehicle for some subtle, self-aware performances, the play showed it could still surprise.

Posted in Theatre review