Posted by Laurence Green

A stylish but rather safe production of Othello is saved by Mark Rylance's portrait of the impotence, provincialism and bitterness of the scheming Iago. Laurence Green reviews.


It is a pleasure to welcome back to Shakespeare’s Globe Mark Rylance in a role he very much makes his own – that of the scheming, villainous Iago in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, in a new production directed by his wife Claire van Kampen.

The republic of Venice employs General Othello, a self-made man and a Moor, to defend its overseas territories against the Turks. As the Turkish threat gathers and Venetian forces are dispatched to Cyprus, the love Othello holds for his new wife, Desdemona, becomes a raging, uncontrollable torrent.

Iago, a junior officer secretly enraged by Othello, exploits his General’s ambitious position and ingenious nature and, by the ruse of a misplaced handkerchief, leads Othello to be convinced of his wife’s infidelity and drives him into a passionate and overpowering jealousy, which culminates in Othello strangling Desdemona.

With its fast moving, concentrated plot and intense dramatic details this is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric and heartbreaking plays. Whilst director Claire van Kampen has undoubtedly come up with a stylish production, it feels rather safe and subsequently underwhelming in parts. Furthermore it looks early on as if Shakespeare’s tragedy is turning into something like a farce, full of frantic physicality and playing for laughs. But Jonathan Fensom’s costume designs are a real treat, with the most elegant clothes worn by Iago’s wife Emilia, sweeping around the stage with an almost regal authority in a glorious trouser suit though Othello’s ornately decorated frock coat is just as eye catching.

American actor Andre Holland is a captivating presence as Othello, demonstrating how the character’s openness is his downfall, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, while his mind is quick to connect the vaguely plausible notions fed to him by Iago. Jessica Warbeck, however, doesn’t cut much ice as his wife Desdemona, beyond suggesting her sexual attraction to Othello.

Sheila Atim portrays Emilia with an independent spirit that chimes well with her later scenes. Catherine Bailey makes her mark as Bianca, Cassio’s mistress, while Aaron Pierre is an effective Cassio and Steffan Donnelly as unusually poignant and much put upon Rodrigo.

But undoubtedly the evening belongs to Mark Rylance who in a red hat and blue tunic shows how Iago’s impotence and provincialism turns into bitterness and envy. Constantly pacing around the stage, at times strumming a mandolin, he stops properly for the first time when he says “I hate the Moor.” Rylance then slowly unpeels the character until it becomes clear that the smiles, the wide eyes and the goofiness are a thin veneer to disguise his tortured, twisted feelings. It is a study in bigotry that resonates today.


Plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until Saturday 3 October 2018.

Box office: 020 7401 9919


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