For the best part of 400 years, ‘Othello’ been treated as a tragedy about a black man, Othello, driven out of his mind by the racist scheming of his supposed friend, Iago.
But Claire van Kampen’s surprisingly jaunty production for the Globe takes the alternate emphasis: that ‘Othello’ is a tragedy about a young woman, Desdemona, who is murdered by her husband Othello as a result of his brittle ego and fragile masculinity.
This is not to say that race has no place to play here, or that Mark Rylance’s faux-humble army officer Iago isn’t the architect of his general’s downfall. But enough is done here to take away Othello’s excuses.
Rylance, the greatest actor of his generation etc etc, is obviously superb. It’s a deliberately down-at-heel performance: his Iago is a scruffy coward, feeding his pawns their lines from the shadows like a sort of malign Cyrano de Bergerac. He’s also funny: with the character’s more supervillainy speeches pruned in this production, he’s got a blithe, chancer-ish energy, a sense that he’s making this all up as he goes along. One assumes that he’s driven by a jealousy of his sophisticated boss and elegant wife – but equally it’s apparent that he’s just a man indulging his worst instincts, who rides the situation out opportunistically.
Most interesting, though, is American star Holland. He’s small and dapper, a ways away from the classic ‘miilitary’ man, and the most eloquent and erudite character. He certainly suffers some racism – but he shrugs it off. What he can’t shrug off is the damage his ego suffers when Iago leads him to believe Desdemona is cheating on him. He doesn’t ‘go mad’ - he’s another man who murders his partner. It’s increasingly difficult in diversely cast modern Shakespeare productions to make Othello’s race his single defining characteristic (see also the NT’s 2013 production); within this context, I don't think it’s being dismissive of racism to move the emphasis to toxic masculinity as he torments then throttles Jessica Warbeck’s blameless Desdemona.
In spite of this undeniable heaviness, Van Kampen’s production is kinetic and vivacious. It has the greatest concentration of acting firepower in town and whumps you in the guts at its most emotional points; but it also has genuine laughs and a couple of delightful full-on dance sequences. Purists may be annoyed that Iago’s soliloquies have been trimmed, but my only real criticism is the costumes – leaving aside the question of why Rylance looks like a lovable video game hero, the aggressive, period-hopping eclecticism doesn’t feel very helpful (though Atim’s mustard pantsuit is a thing of unalloyed wonder).
The new Michelle Terry regime at the Globe has had an uncertain start, but this smart, sensitive, surefooted contribution from a crew of old hands goes some way to steadying the ship.