A quick disclaimer before we get started. I am no Shakespeare expert. I’ve seen many film adaptions and some stage productions of his work and I even have my own unique take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on my ever-growing pile of things to write, however Othello is a play that I would be pretty comfortable saying, “I know it”.
It always intrigued and appealed to me possibly because it felt like a misfit amongst his many classics. The significance of a black lead and the tale of love transcending race and status can’t be overstated and were potent forces as I began to discover his work. So, it was a glorious surprise to find that this curiously humorous, thrillingly diverse and electrifying production elevates themes old and new in ways that reinforce his infinite appeal to audiences and directors.
Sheila Atim is blessed with gowns fitted to make her seem like a Shakespearian superhero
This production arrives with the heavyweight star wattage of Mark Rylance, Andre Holland (Moonlight) and Sheila Atim (Girl From The North Country) all fresh from respective screen or stage successes plus the injection of a unique vision carved by Claire van Kampen, Rylance’s wife (also on composer duties). It definitely feels like Shakespeare but takes welcome liberties, poking fun at some of what we’ve grown accustomed to.
Othello is a tragic love story, one of Shakespeare’s most uncompromising but this feels light, ceaseless, fluid and at times celebratory, which for some may be a step too far but for me fitted perfectly with the surroundings and setting. The Globe isn’t a rigid, dark and deeply serious space and nor are the shards of bard thrown out to the crowd here.
Rylance is in his element here, returning to Shakespeare, owning the Globe and effortlessly injecting Iago with less menace and more mischief. His Iago is a joker, jaunty and nihilistic but never the nasty villain some audiences might crave in order to emotionally buy into it. I however enjoyed his performance even if it does swerve away from some themes of bigotry, hatred and race that have been seen and done before.
This also serves as a captivating contrast to Holland’s performance. Complex, charismatic and captivating enough to viscerally and vividly bring Othello’s descent into madness and then murder to life, he is an exciting choice for the part, commanding as much deserved attention as some truly breathtaking coats by Lorraine Ebdon-Price. Playing with his own Southern American accent, whilst all around him are English is a curious choice but his tones and rolls were refreshing to the ear.
There will be those who have their reservations, this isn’t a conceptual piece of Shakespeare, it’s not contemporary, particularly innovative or like stepping into the future, it is a mesh of tradition and some trickery that puts the play and performances first. Anything more might have achieved less because it feels like an opportunity to see an ensemble left partially exposed by a minimal set and lack of razzmatazz, overcome that and let the bard and them do the talking.
And no one does this better than Atim who takes a character like Emilia and raises her to a level where it is impossible to find flaws. Blessed with gowns fitted to make her seem like a Shakespearian superhero, she is a mixture of power and poise, sadness and sweetness and even gets a moment to sing that seems to stop time momentarily, reminding you just how good a talent she is. Magnificent.
Othello is a tragic love story, one of Shakespeare’s most uncompromising but this feels light, ceaseless, fluid and at times celebratory
The rest of the cast thrive more in ensemble moments than when given their solo slices of action and some struggle with a lack of substance to really sink their teeth into. Jessica Warbeck’s Desdemona simply doesn’t have enough to do to leave the same impression as some of her cast members but she radiates love, lust and life believably enough to make her final scene feel weighty, earned and me wishing she had been given more to make an impact with.
The discussion about Othello’s themes percolate and permeate throughout the ages, new productions or not and I’m sure there are people who will crave more from this, especially in the age of metoo, #blacklivesmatter and fleeting disposable romance but there’s plenty to enjoy and mull over once the curtain falls on the final show stopping scene and here’s something new, it’s not what you think it might be.