Review - Othello, starring Mark Rylance & André Holland, at Shakespeare's Globe
Easily the most-hyped production of Shakespeare’s Globe’s current season sees the eagerly anticipated return of Mark Rylance to the venue where he served as its first artistic director from 1995 to 2005, and, in an intriguing casting coup, he’s taking on one of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains. The role of Iago in the great tragedy Othello is perhaps the slyest and most manipulative of all the roles in the Bard’s canon and Rylance’s interpretation is so disarmingly charming, despite prior knowledge of the plot, you feel yourself willingly fall prey to his scheming alongside the titular character. With his signature comic timing and gentle allure, Rylance plays it for laughs – and ample laughs at that. Almost lulled into a false sense of security, when Iago’s poison finally sinks in and the tragic conclusions of the tale unfold, you could hear a pin drop at the Globe. The silence was that much more devastating after so much raucous interaction, particularly during the first half.
Perhaps equally as fascinating is the casting of an American actor as Othello. With such an ethnically diverse cast, André Holland’s deep and rhythmic accent sets him apart, gives him that extra dose of sexual allure and heightens the notion of “the foreigner” among the sea of British voices. I personally felt this became essential due to the casting of Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona – who is actually taller and more physically imposing than Holland – and the casting of Aaron Pierre as Cassio, a LAMDA graduate making his professional stage debut, whose body resembles an Adonis and whose physicality could be compared to a raging bull. Holland’s accent and skill as an actor neutralise the physical mismatches well and that’s no surprise when you consider the Alabama native’s résumé, which not only includes acclaimed performances on the silver screen in the likes of “Selma” and the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” but also four “Shakespeare in the Park” productions in New York City’s Central Park.
Whenever I attend a Shakespeare performance, I’m always guilty of being more excited about discovering the director’s interpretation of the classic than discovering or re-discovering the classic itself. Where, when and how it will be set occupy the forefront of my mind. With Claire van Kampen, Rylance’s wife, at the helm, interestingly the choice was made to use minimal sets and props and timelessly non-specific, contrasting costumes (thanks to designer Jonathan Fensom), enabling the play to speak for itself. This Othello is simply about the blank verse and prose and performance, and it’s those elements alone which entice us onto this emotional rollercoaster.
Those stood in the pit are once again part of the action here as Rylance and co. single out patrons (aka groundlings) to toy impishly with them and there was a beautiful moment at the performance I attended where Holland bonded with a large group of black men in the pit, momentarily going off-script, that signified the kind of inclusivity the Globe should always be striving for. Indeed, it seemed that the only one in the whole building who wasn’t utterly captivated by the unfolding tragedy was a pigeon, who proceeded to excrete onto the stage during the second half to a delightful gasp from the audience. They say that brings luck, but with such a high calibre of cast, something tells me they aren’t going to need it.
Photo credit: Simon Annand