Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Shakespeare's Globe, Monday 8th October 2018
A tragedy at The Globe is invariably a triumph, especially when it’s one of the Bard’s major plays. Othello is the third in my Shakespeare Slam. The four big tragedies in a calendar year. Once again, this play is full of conflict and woe, but with room for moments of comedy to help it along. Shakespeare’s tragedies are always far more than simply devastating.
The first burst of comedy came at the seat-finding stage. Somehow I found myself standing up where all around were seated, wondering why the seats were numbered all wrong and occupied. I was in the lower gallery! I disappeared with a swagger and went higher, in denial over my own stupidity.
On a loftier perch in the upper gallery, I had a grand view of the Shard and the stars, and was blessed with a refreshing breeze. A decent view, but this was clearly where the plebs sit. The other plebs, who can afford a bit more than the £5 forked out by those in the pit. A few minutes into the play there was a disturbance behind me. A rustling of a paper bag. The scoffing of chocolate brownies. Eventually the culprits went quiet, after my third Paddington Bear stare and a sharply whispered please be quiet.
On to the professional drama taking place. I’m going to major on the performances rather than the themes in this review. Starting with one of my all-time favourites. I had heard that Sir Mark Rylance would be playing the role of Iago for laughs. I was ready for that. Sure enough, first he was Corporal Jones from Dads’ Army. They don’t like it up ‘em. Then he was Super Mario, bouncing around. And then he reminded me of Barry Chuckle. To me, to you. To Shakespeare. And I make these observations with great admiration. How Rylance managed to repeat the same line eight times and make it amusing each time is beyond me:
“Put money in thy purse”.
Your face, Mark. Your face! (photo: Simon Annand)
Rylance’s Iago was also smart, mischievous, jealous and bitter. Sprightly too. He made music and danced to it. Raucous! A fabulous, rabble rousing, debauched scene with chains, instruments, clanging and banging. Everything. The director, Claire van Kampen, was so right to allow Rylance to have his fun and games. And then the music stopped, and the inquest began. Who started it? Who hit who first? The stage became decidedly icy. Later, some of the humour was reprised, but by then Iago had firmly shoved several characters on their way to eternal damnation.
Fun while it lasted
(photo: Simon Annand)
In actions and character, André Holland played the title role just right. A great man (actually a brute of a man in the end), brought low by a tiny scrap of Egyptian cotton. A wreck. An apology for a man. So easily swayed. Betrayed and belittled.
I had harboured great expectations here. A moor with a difference, i.e. an American. But this was a Buzz Lightweight performance by an actor from an Oscar winning movie (Moonlight). Holland had presence, and accent, but no boom. He is no Willard White, who probably boomed a little too much at the Young Vic in 1989. Holland’s restrained projection might be fine in a small, closed in venue, but here he struggled to get all the way up to the upper gallery in this semi-open venue, with the sounds of the London night all around.
André Holland as Othello. Was this the man who wowed Hollywood?
(photo: Simon Annand)
He also missed some of his big lines. His
“Put out the light and then, put out the light”
was barely audible.
So too was his
“one who loved not wisely but too well”,
which he mumbled into this chest. Here he should have been raging. Many lines were hard to pick up. In contrast, Rylance delivered all his lines at about the same volume but with more projection and much greater clarity. I’ve never understood Shakespeare’s words on stage better.
Jessica Hardwick gave a competent, honest performance. Solid and dutiful. She came and went as she was bidden. A mistreated character. Submissive. Baffled. But with no fire and no strength.
Desdemona (Jessica Harwick) failing to convince her man
(photo: Simon Annand)
The truly strong female was Emilia (Sheila Atim). And even she only came alive in the last act, refusing to be silenced after the atrocity had taken place. But it would be ridiculously unfair to blame the women for anything in this play.
Emilia (Sheila Atim). So much to say and yet it only came out in the end
(photo: Simon Annand)
Her namesake, Emilia Bassano, a contemporary of Shakespeare and possibly the Dark Lady in the Sonnets, was the subject of another sensational Globe production recently. Emilia Bassano's voice was also not heard much in her time, hence the opportunity created for her to tell her story now, via the Globe, by writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm.
The role of Race and Racism
When the first reviews of this production came out, I baulked at them for omitting to mention race and racism. Surely this was a key theme of the play. But I had to double check my text for evidence. Astonishingly, I found very to support my argument. There are references to a racist culture, especially early on from Brabantio, spurred on by Iago, not least in the line
"your daughter and the moor are now making the beast with two backs"
in the very first scene. But Shakespeare did not dwell on racism as the main problem in this play. There is a discourse to be had on Othello and Racism, and I explore this in a related Connected Cultures feature.
For me, the focus in this play, and especially this production at the Globe, was rightly on a much wider presentation of human wretchedness. Jealousy, weakness, corruption, depravity and abuse in many guises, in several sordid and dysfunctional relationships. This is a play in which women are largely silenced, and men are spurred on to say and do things that make life hell for both other men and women.
Praying for disaster (photo: Simon Annand)
Towards the end there was more revelry, once again received with rapturous applause, followed by some weird, slightly awkward ballet dancing. This seemed a bit unnecessary to me. I was still dealing with the absolute pointlessness of the death of Desdemona. And then my mind flashed back to the earlier fun in the play, and how I had felt myself beaming with enjoyment. How Rylance’s Iago had led us all a merry dance. But not for long. It was always going to end in despair beyond belief. Through too much believing.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
See the Connected Cultures feature: Racism in Othello
Shakespeare's Globe: Othello
Shakespeare's Globe: Emilia
Whats On Stage: Shakespeare's Globe's Emilia to transfer to the west end