Jumping to conclusions may not always be the best policy - particularly if you're a hot-blooded male with a military bent, and a disposition inclined to making snap decisions (Prince Harry, take heed). Perhaps that's what Shakespeare was trying to tell us with this story of love and hate, reworked here by a capable and well-directed company at Shakespeare's Globe. Or maybe Shakespeare was revealing more about trust, or delving into the comparative natures of men and women. Whatever the case, here's a play with an astonishing plot that successfully manages to rapidly turn passionate love into murderous hate, thanks to the manipulations of a schemer par excellence.
First performed in 1604, the tragedy of Othello is an odd kind of tale because the central character, a black general and leader of the Venetian military forces, seems all too easily duped by his sidekick Iago. It stretches credibility a smidgen when someone of importance, like Othello, believes Iago's 'your wife's been messing about with some other geezer' messages as though they were truth spoken from the mouth of God Almighty. But, to appreciate Othello's reactions and the success Iago has in manipulating events, you have to take note of the early part of the play when it transpires that Othello and his beloved Desdemona have married in secret without her father's knowledge. The implication is that, as Iago unhesitatingly points out to Othello, if she can dupe her father she can dupe Othello too. However, that doesn't diminish Iago's amazing powers of deception, even if he is helped along the way with a measure of good fortune.
Eamonn Walker has the necessary physical presence to convince us that he's a first-rate general and worthy of leading the Venetian forces - I don't think I'd want to tangle (militarily speaking) with someone of his unquestionably large stature. There's raging passion and anger in Walker's performance which counteracts to some extent my disquiet about the role. He tackles the epileptic fit with suitable writhing agony, and the strangulation scene in the bedroom, which can often seem fake or engineered, was impulsive and yet authentically controlled. However, I found myself straining to hear Walker at all too-frequent intervals - a little more clarity and volume in the diction department wouldn't have gone amiss given the Globe's cavernous space, and the Heathrow flight path.
Best known perhaps for his long-running appearances in the hit TV show 'Black Adder', Tim McInnnerny presents a more swashbuckling Iago than the customary definition of a scheming, political conniver that we're often treated to in other productions. McInnerny is a professional soldier first and foremost - no trace of a political bureaucrat here. He forcibly captures our attention, particularly in the soliloquies, but some of his gestures were rather repetitive, even for a well-disciplined, solidering type.
Though the males in this company don't disappoint, it's the women in the cast who shine. Zoë Tapper's Desdemona is a capable and beautiful woman, bemused then finally distraught at her husband's surprising vault-face. And as Desdemona's lady-in-waiting and Iago's wife Aemilia, Lorraine Burroughs provided a compelling display of spirited tenacity when she unhesitatingly takes on both Othello and her husband, gaining much respect even in her inevitable demise. Academics have assessed the 'real time' in this play as being something of the order of 33 hours - a rather short time to consumate a marriage and then bump off your bride, you might think. And it feels like we're almost sitting through each of those hours as the running time heads towards the 3 and a half hours mark as the company deliver the 3,500 lines of the play (just falling short of the longest, Hamlet, by the odd 500 words or so). Don't get me wrong, no-one drags their feet in this production or deliberately tries to spin it out, but splendid though the Globe is in almost every way, you really do need a cushion to make this marathon physically endurable given the austerity of the Globe's benches.
Though this version of Othello doesn't scream novelty, or provide much in the way of new insights, it continues the development of serious and polished Shakespearian work at the Globe since Dominic Dromgoole took over as artistic director there last year. Hopefully though, the best is yet to come.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Scrupulously authentic; definitively jarring." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The production is lucid and forthright...A decent, if not revelatory Othello." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A decent, middle-rank production full of pace and energy."
Production photo by Johan Persson