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A CurtainUp London Review

"But I do think it is their husbands' faults If wives do fall." — Emilia
Mark Rylance as Iago (Photo: Simon Anand)
It can be a difficult space to play high tragedy at the wonderful open air space of Shakespeare's Globe as a proportion of the audience have chosen to stand for approaching three hours at a mere £5 a head. Many of them will be visitors to London with a less than perfect ear for Shakespeare's 16th century English. The tendency is for those in the Pit to grasp at light relief and laugh in places not usually associated with laughter but with tears. I felt Lucy Bailey handled this distracting audience brilliantly in her Macbeth when she spread a tarpaulin over the crowd allowing just their heads and necks to poke through, here.

I remember being incensed during Mark Rylance's reign as Artistic Director of the Globe when he was playing Richard II, the king who cannot live as anyone except a king, when the deposed monarch asks for, "a little, little grave" in his little, little voice. The crowd's reaction was to giggle at a moment which should have been full of high pathos. Rylance's words came over as ironic and there were those of us in the audience who felt he was milking the audience for laughter.

Mark Rylance is known for his understated, subtle acting, a skill which has brought him awards galore, Tonys in New York, Oliviers in London and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. I thought Rylance's performance as Johnny "Rooster" in Jerusalem was one of the finest performances of this century. (here.

I have felt that the true central character of Othello should not be the Moor but Iago, who after all has the soliloquies. Rylance, directed by his wife, Claire van Kampen, who doubles unusually as director and composer, has chosen to softly speak Iago at a tremendous rate of knots which was too fast for me to grasp the full meaning of Iago's words. In addition, here is the director talking about her "heavy cut" of the play. "So we're cutting some rhetoric-heavy comment, and also some of Iago's revelations of what he plans to do."

With Rylance's experience with the 700 groundlings in the Pit, they find much to chuckle and laugh at. Even when Iago suggests that Othello should strangle Desdemona, "Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated," the crowd shockingly laugh. My overarching impression of Rylance's Iago is one of a man wheedling and whining and inducing laughter. The director seems at her happiest in the barracks drunken scene where there is music and dancing. Emilia and Desdemona (Jessica Warbeck) sing the willow song prettily but the ballet finale struck an odd note.

You can understand the difference of emphasis that this reaction will place on the tragedy. André: Holland, more used to film and television than the vast space of The Globe is also understated as Othello, the Moorish general and has little to play off from his poisonous underling, whose resentment has not been adequately described to us. It may be that this old critic is too entrenched in Shakespearean tradition to fully appreciate Othello as deconstructed as a Caesar salad, reduced to its simplest components in the Globe season. Newly appointed Artistic Director Michelle Terry has called the current season, her first, "an egalitarian, universal, collective exploration" in a "distracted Globe" which has seen gender blind productions of "Hamlet" and "As You Like It".

There are gender blind minor roles in this Othello with Catherine Bailey doubling as the Doge of Venice and a vivacious Bianca, and Badria Timini as the feminised but impressive, Lodovica. Ludovica arrives in Cyprus to see Desdemona slapped by Othello. Relying on an academic's portrait of 1600 Venice as a multi-racial society, the racial aspect of Othello has been downplayed and diluted with several other characters played by black actors. Aaron Pierre, in his first theatre role after training at LAMDA, is very promising as Casio. Sheila Atim, such a tall and commanding figure, plays Iago's wife and Desdemona's woman servant, Emilia, benefitting from one of Jonathan Fenson's designs that looks as if it has come straight from Milan's Fashion Week.

Fensom's costumes are indeed lovely and had us all discussing what era the soldiers in blue, buttoned waist length tunics and red caps were meant to convey, someone mentioning The Grand Budapest Hotel . Desdemona's bed is a magnificent curtained four poster as imposing as it is ominous.

The crowd enjoyed Othello, they laughed and clapped enthusiastically at the end. They got what they had come for: entertainment on a fine summer's evening in a historically recreated theatre, seeing the star of Dunkirk, Wolf Hall and Jerusalem. Does it matter that they were laughing during the tragic moments of this play? You decide.

I am looking forward to the Globe's new play this season Emilia which will draw on some of Shakespeare's Emilias and maybe link her to the Bard's Dark Lady.

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Othello by William Shakespeare
Directed by Claire van Kampen
Starring: André Holland, Mark Rylance, Sheila Atim, Aaron Pierre, Jessica Warbeck, Badria Timini
With: Catherine Bailey, William Chbb, Steffan Donnelly, Micah Loubon, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Clemmie Sveaas
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Choreographer: Antonia Franceschi
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of Rc-Annie Ltd
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0207 401 9919
Booking to 13th October 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th July 2018 performance at Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT (Rail/Tube: London Bridge or St Paul's and via the wobbly bridge)
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