The return of Mark Rylance to The Globe main stage is the lynchpin of Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director and luring her predecessor back to play Iago in a new version of Othello is a major coup. It’s been a quiet season for Terry so far, not glowing but largely positive reviews for The Globe’s return to its more traditional approach to staging Shakespeare’s work, divested of the divisive sets and sound systems that defined the Emma Rice era. No one loves the traditional Globe more than Rylance and his return can be seen as an affirmation of Terry’s vision. With so much collective experience of staging Shakespeare in this theatre, and the skills of an actor at the helm who in 2016 managed the rare feat of winning an Oscar and being nominated for an Olivier in the same year, why is this Othello not better?
Shakespeare’s enduring story of sexual and political jealousy seems like an easy win for The Globe. Othello is one of the more accessible tragedies; there are no intangible musings on life and death or need to understand how supernatural forces affect human agency, instead Othello is driven by the simple idea of one man deceptively and invidiously poisoning the happiness of another. While the romance with Desdemona is best remembered, the play’s central focus on the misguided friendship between Othello and Iago holds the story together and focuses the expanding drama. Often in Shakespeare, the audience holds knowledge that one or more of the characters is denied, we know when someone is in disguise or when a murder has occurred. In Othello, we are party to Iago’s plot to destroy his friend and Commander, so Shakespeare deliberately makes the viewer both complicit and powerless bystanders in order to build a sense of inevitability in the destruction of the characters and their world.
But like Macbeth the success of this tragedy depends on how effectively their confined scenario is created and how well the psychological development of the characters is managed. To truly believe in Iago’s dastardly plan to make Othello mistrust his wife, the audience must be convinced by his motivation, to understand why he feels aggrieved in the first place and crucially why he chooses this particular path above seeking alternative forms of revenge. Finally, there must also be a sense of the social structure in which they are operating – the separation between male and female characters, the ability to prevent individuals from encountering each other and revealing the truth – which explain how Iago is able to maintain his falsehoods without fear of discovery.
The Globe’s new production is yet to make the most of that audience relationship, building a conspiratorial alliance between stage and viewer that is so vital to understand and engage with the play. Whatever route the Company has chosen is not being effectively communicated, so it becomes difficult to understand why individuals behave as they do and what exactly is at stake. There are several reasons for this; first, there is no clear vision for this Othello and none of the key questions have been answered by the production. It is set in a somewhat ambiguous location with an amusing Russian Revolution meets New Romantic aesthetic, allowing everyone to swirl around in embroidered gowns, woollen trench-coats and berets, but the social and military limitations of Othello’s world are inconclusive.
You never feel, as you should, that Iago’s schemes are able to succeed because the men exist within the confines of a geographical army base and must observe the restrictions of military hierarchy. Thus, unable to daily socialise with the people of Cyprus, or encounter anyone outside army life other than in the play’s early scenes, or able to speak openly to one another while on duty, the suspicion the Iago seeds can take root and fester. The villain knows he would be soon discovered in gossipy society, but within this structure he is able to control the ebb and flow of information reaching him commander’s ears.
Likewise, the physical separation of men and women in the play is deliberate and, by preventing contact between husband and wife for much of the central part of the action, Shakespeare ensures that Desdemona has no opportunity to allay these fears or abut the false accusations until Othello is already past the point of no return. Designer Jonathan Fensom and Director Claire van Kampen never make this clear in The Globe’s interpretation, the audience doesn’t notice the shift in location nor how this creates a new psychological environment in which Iago’s betrayal can freely operate.
While The Globe seems to have returned to a minimal no-sets policy, this has resulted in some curious directional decisions which become equally alienating for the audience. In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo discuss Othello’s recent marriage, but the actors deliver their lines while circling the stage pillars in rapid figures of eight. This constant movement, and the subsequent breathlessness of the actors, is a bizarre feature of the entire show, with characters frequently moving from one side of the stage to the other mid-sentence, never quite letting the core moments settle or resonate. Perhaps without a set, the space feels intimidating from the stage, but the result is a too frantic production that denies any chance of stillness or the opportunity to build sufficient tension that allow the audience to absorb crucial plot developments.
Utilising the full stage to ensure all sides of the auditorium can see and hear what is happening is great, and there’s nothing more frustrating than all of the action occurring on the opposite side to your seat, but here the constant movement proves counter-productive, actively undermining both the visual and auditory experience of the show. Even from the pit, at relatively close quarters to the stage, it is difficult to hear every word, particularly when half sentences are interrupted by the actor’s movement to another location – presumably the sound quality in the upper levels of the theatre will be hugely problematic. A more effective approach would be to base entire scenes on either side of the space which still balances the action without the whirly confusion of people inexplicably marching up and down. It is a fast-paced play, but this impedes rather than heightens our connection with it, suggesting a fear of exposure that a bare stage may create.
Rylance’s Iago is one of the most anticipated performances of the year, so it’s curious that it should be so unremarkable. With a couple of previews remaining, Rylance hasn’t taken a particular point of view on the character that ties the recitation of the lines to any specific decision about Iago’s motives or purpose. This surprising lack of resolution has much in common with Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth (himself a remarkable Iago in Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production), in that neither actor seems entirely comfortable in the role or able to make sense of the conflicting ambitions and fears that explain the character.
What Iago is doing in this play and why, we never really find out. Is he a sociopath enjoying the destruction of people around him for its own sake, or are there more complicated jealousies at work? Kinnear made it clear that being overlooked for promotion turned his Iago against his former friend, but although Rylance’s Iago quickly mumbles something about a rumoured affair between his own wife, Amelia, and Othello, and some attraction to Desdemona, we’re never told why he’s doing it. This is compounded by the unusual speed with which Rylance is delivering the lines, the rapidity of which undermines the clarity and prevents us from understanding the character’s aims, losing that important sense of confederacy between the villain and his audience.
It is quite an unexpected performance, and while the show is clearly attempting to maintain a sense of pace, of events rapidly spiralling out of control that unusually for The Globe brings the show in at around two and half hours, it doesn’t result in a real understanding of the character or his motivation. Anyone who has seen Rylance before will know he is a sensitive and accomplished performer of Shakespeare, he loves to play to the crowd while able to extract the subtle nuances and humanity of his characters, which makes this surprisingly workman-like approach quite inexplicable. Even an underpowered Rylance performance is better than most, and will certainly please his fans, but you’re not feeling a huge investment from him in the role – it’s as though he’s barely there.
Despite the uncertain approach to showing themes and purpose, both André Holland as Othello and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona fair rather better. While the lack of resolution around them hampers our perspective on Othello’s responses, Holland has a command of the stage that suits the social status of his character. This Othello is confident and comfortable in himself cutting the worries of race and prejudice that other interpretations have emphasised, although Holland uses his natural American accent to convey a sense of ‘otherness’ that still sets him apart from a more diverse British cast. That happiness with his lot means the rapid decline into distrust and anger seems more dramatic. Holland’s Othello suggests a respectful and deep love for Desdemona that feels like a credible marriage, while their final confrontation is loaded with danger and tension.
Desdemona can be a rather thankless part, and even some of the best productions can be dragged down by an insipid interpretation that leaves you wondering why everyone is losing their head over her. Yet here, Warbeck has a rational strength that makes her a worthy match for the army commander, delivering her lines quite naturally without any of the shrill simpering that blights over versions, and making her all the more sympathetic, an innocent fatality in a political game. While it would be useful to see some contact with Aaron Pierre’s Cassio, at least to give Iago’s rumour some grounding, the rest of the cast lack direction. Cassio is likeable, while Sheila Atim’s Emilia eventually has her moment of resistance, but there is too little ambiguity in the overall show design to allow us to understand why Cassio is an obvious target to be Iago’s fall guy (rather than Rodrigo who openly expresses a desire for Desdemona), and what hold he has over his wife to force her complicity.
With press night imminent, there seems to be much to do if this version of Othello is to shine, and although any production can have an off-night similar reports are emerging of rushed lines and audio difficulties across the early run. As it stands, if you have never seen Othello before then this watchable version conveys the basic story, but it never gets to grips with the dark forces at the heart of the play, or the carefully constructed machinations of its villain. The Globe can do better than this, and Rylance certainly knows how the power of this writer in this theatre can be an illuminating combination. It needs to decide what it wants to say and give its star the time to deliver the performance we all know he is capable of.
Othello is at The Globe until 13 October and tickets start at £5 for standing and £22 seated. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1