The curtain-twitcher. The over-the-garden-fence whisperer. The just-saying-it-like-it-is tweeter. Evilness comes in many forms, including what is often the most scary of all, hidden behind the apparently innocuous, bumbling and familiar face. At the heart of Claire Van Kampen’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello is Iago (Mark Rylance), played as the (not so-) friendly neighbourhood fascist, a buttoned-up Agatha Christie bellhop who looks like he has a passion for large-scale train sets (as long as no one else gets to play on them with him).
Rylance’s Iago is the archetypal below-the-line commenter, a man obsessed with other people having sex – obsessed, even, with just the idea of sex. When he says ‘beast with two backs’, it’s with the same school-boy guffaw or eyebrow raise apparently-liberal people use when casually but triumphantly mentioning ‘…And you know who SHE used to be with, right?!’ He’s also the guy who will magic from nowhere an acoustic guitar (or in this case, a mandolin) at a party and starts strumming away, despite being entirely uninvited to do so.
It’s a clever interpretation of a character whose name has become a byword for moral corruption, one I probably enjoyed more in theory or retrospect than when I was actually watching it. Rylance’s performance plants Iago right in the middle of normal, borderline-provincial, life. We all know that charming, mild eccentric who turns out to be far less cuddly than their exterior suggests.
It also places Iago in direct contrast to André Holland’s stately, lyrical and composed Othello. Here, part of Othello’s ‘other’-ness is his American accent, but it’s also achingly apparent Iago hates him in part for simply being more masculine, more confident, more physically beautiful. Holland produces a skilled, sensitive performance, one that suggests he’d be great to see cast in other Shakespeare productions. The words roll out his mouth with a gentle naturalism that retains the poetic qualities of the original script.
Unfortunately, he’s slightly wasted in this production. Despite the virtues of the two central performances, the piece as a whole never quite coalesces or beckons genuine emotion. Sheila Atim is nuanced and quietly powerful as Emilia, but she too feels wasted in a role that requires her to bear witness for the first 75% of the play, before briefly being given lines prior to her brutal death (Shakespeare’s fault entirely, not Van Kampen’s). The suggestion this calm, intelligent, observant woman would ever have been the wife of evil Chuckle Brother Iago feels implausible. In a less pronounced way, the relationship between Othello and Desdemona (Jessica Warbeck) lacks palpable passion, despite the choice to foreground their kisses and public displays of affection.
This incompleteness or bittiness is also present in the set and costume design. The latter throws into the air everything from Romanesque red cloaks through to 70s camel overcoats, slashed Elizabethan skirts, Austen-worthy embroidered frock coats, a bucketful of militarism and one pair of ugly, strappy sandals. It’s not overwhelmingly a problem, but it also feel like everything and nothing is being said visually.
The production does, however, solve with real elegance one of the perennial questions of Globe performances: how do you segue into the end-of-show jig when the play has ended on a note of absolute tragedy? At its best, the traditional dance acts as a discharger of the energy conjured into the Globe during a play, but how you get from a death bed scene to syncopated hip wriggling is tricky – and the transition can be hilariously crass. Choreographer Antonia Franceschi, however, masterfully uses a balletic pas de deux as the interlude between the final moments of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the foot-stomping finale. It’s a genuinely brilliant solution – classy, subtle, clever – and it grants a marginally uneven production a fluid and graceful ending.
Othello is on Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October 2018. Click here for more details.