Sally Minogue looks at the book behind the current ITV series ...
Wednesday morning, end of August and I’m super-excited. After a week of cyber-stalking the Globe Theatre’s box office, I’ve got a return for Othello, whose current run is practically sold out. I need to travel through London anyway, and I’ve got annual leave to use up, so I take the day off work, pack alight lunch and away I go on my journey. I’m not a novice when it comes to ‘solo theatre adventures’, as I like to think of them, be they in the capital or elsewhere. It’s not that I am unsociable, and I do love cultural expeditions with friends and family, but there’s something wickedly self-indulgent and liberating and ever-so-slightly carefree about striking out on one’s own. Unbound by planned rendezvous and joint schedules, I’ll be more likely to have impromptu conversations with the people sitting next to me – not that being in company has ever stopped me from exchanging critical views and general chit-chat with complete strangers, mind.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in this country for twenty years, I invariably pinch myself when I’m in London, especially if I am there, navigating its vaguely familiar territory, alone. From Liverpool Street, I decide to travel on by bus,and the 344 obligingly pulls over as soon as I figure out where exactly to get it from. In the front seat at the top of the double-decker, the feeling that the city is my oyster increases. Then my literary reflexes kick in, and I find myself a minor character in Mrs Dalloway. Maybe the young woman on the other front seat is a 21st-century Elizabeth. “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.” No, wrong Shakespeare play. Wrong mood even. Today, with my light-hearted spirits and starry-eyed view of London, I’ll channel Paddington Bear instead.
This buoyancy of mine, fuelled by how lucky I feel about my eleventh-hour pass to Othello, is partly to do with the fact that I haven’t been to the Globe in a while. I am thrilled to be going back. It’s such a magical place, and brings Shakespeare – and theatre – to life like nowhere else. It makes them accessible like nowhere else too, all the more so if you don’t leave it to the very last minute like I have done this time. When I was still a student, I often used to make a day of it and catch two plays back-to-back, as a groundling. At £5 a pop, the tickets would cost less than the train fare from Canterbury; besides,let’s be honest about it, being a groundling is the way to experience the Globe.
The return I’ve got my hands on this afternoon is for a seat with restricted view in the lower gallery, but I can’t say I’m too worried about having a pillar in my line of vision. When I finally snap out of my Paddington Bear reverie / London love-in (look! people at the top of the Monument!) and get off the 344, my thoughts turn to the fact that I find Othello a very difficult play to like. The racist abuse directed at the Moor – as the as-yet-unnamed Othello is tellingly referred to in the first scene – is hard to watch, even though representing bigotry is definitely not the same thing as condoning it. I also always struggle and feel deeply uncomfortable with being asked to believe that such a noble, kind and magnanimous character as Othello would be so easily taken in by his ensign’s machinations, regardless how Machiavellian an interpretation of the “honest Iago” we are given. Here, of course, is the crux of the play’s racial politics: does the text ultimately perpetuate dehumanizing stereotypes when portraying Othello in the grip of murderous jealousy?
If Othello’s change from confident warrior and loving husband to brutal agent of misogynist violence seems sudden, I hang on to the self-evident truth that for dramatic purposes plays often condense and heighten psychological developments which in real life would take much longer to unfold. As to what precipitates Othello’s irrational turn, the text makes abundantly clear that – whether in praise or in scorn – “the valiant Moor” is consistently identified as an outsider, a man whose story is out of the ordinary (“She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange, / ’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful”). This by no means justifies the homicidal rage that Othello unleashes onto Desdemona, but we do well to bear in mind how precarious his position, and how fragile his acceptance into Venetian society, are. Speaking of sudden turns, consider how cruelly Brabantio reacts to the news that his daughter loves Othello and has secretly married him. Paternal protectiveness alone would not warrant these begrudging, outright hostile lines: “Come hither, Moor: / I here do give thee that with all my heart / I would keep from thee. For your sake, jewel, / I am glad at soul I have no other child, / For thy escape would teach me tyranny / To hang clogs on them.” And this from a man who, by Othello’s reckoning, has so far been a gracious, hospitable friend (“Her father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life…”).
The other concern I can’t get out of my head in anticipation of the performance is whether I will take to Mark Rylance’s Iago. I love Mark Rylance, and his presence has been a big incentive for me to make this mid-week theatrical trip. However, I have heard on Saturday Review (which I also love) that his Iago is – I’m quoting from memory – played for laughs. Tom Sutcliffe and his guests are unanimous in their perplexity and disapproval of this choice; they feel that the comedic charge in this production, which exploits to the full the possibility for moments of humorous interaction between the actors and the pit, does a disservice to the play, because it impairs the audience’s ability to grieve as they should for its ruinous ending.
This has me worried. I find the play problematic as it is, and the harshness of its graphic representation of violence against women almost unbearable, but I don’t want its shocking impact diminished in any way. The hero’s inevitable fall, his tragic flaw or hamartia, and the anti-hero’s careful plotting manifest themselves at the expense of women. I don’t want to see Desdemona (Jessica Warbeck) and Emilia (Sheila Atim) turned into collateral damage in a production which does not dole out its comic relief judiciously and cannot marshal the audience’s sympathy in the right direction. By the time I have taken my seat, I feel a modicum of apprehension, as well as a tingle of joyful expectation.
The performance doesn’t disappoint. Quite the reverse. Yes, there are several times when it elicits hilarity from the audience, but these moments don’t feel discordant or inappropriate, given that the Globe thrives on an intimate responsiveness from its public. And I wouldn’t say that the script is played for laughs, even if various interpretative choices – Mark Rylance’s strumming on the mandolin at one point, for example – puncture the gravitas of the situation. With or without mandolin, this is a diminished Iago, and not just because several of his lines have been cut.
With his customary assuredness – Shakespeare rolls off his tongue with unparalleled ease – Rylance gives us a petty, often bumbling Iago. There is none of the bombast, if that is the right word, of traditional interpretations of the character as an arch-villain, which have sometimes seen me leave the theatre wondering why the play is not entitled after him. This is a Iago in a minor key; his scheming has an almost improvisational quality about it: there is nothing grandiose about him pulling it off. In turn, this makes no room for the reserved admiration that we bestow, against our better judgement, on a brilliant criminal mastermind.
At the same time, Rylance’s creeping deviousness is plausibly lethal because it is so base: of course noble Othello (André Holland) and faithful Emilia fall for it; they naturally inhabit a more honourable sphere than this Iago’s. They soar too high to suspect such unthinkable infamy. The unusual characterization in this production does not lessen the devastating poignancy and sheer horror of the ending. If anything, it emphasizes them. The four-poster bed glides on the spare stage like a gilded, black coffin. Emilia joins her mistress – and very nearly steals the scene – in singing the willow song. Shortly afterwards, Sheila Atim’s magnetic presence and impassioned delivery reinvigorate Emilia’s famous defence of women: “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell / And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have”.
The whole speech is an exhortation to Ophelia, and all women, not to blame themselves for imaginary trespasses foisted upon them by men. In a Globe season that celebrates Emilia Bassano – rumoured to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and possibly the inspiration behind the various Emilias in his plays – as a proto-feminist author in her own right, whose voice we need to rediscover, this is a true #MeToo, Time’s Up moment. This is the wider context of Ophelia’s killing, as well as Emilia’s of course: the deaths of the two women, murdered by their husbands, are more affecting than usual because they feel part of a very topical conversation about misogyny.
In the closing scene, as the Venetian notables take stock of the sequence of events, Rylance is on his knees, his hands tied behind his back, a perfect weaselly Iago, the destruction he’s wreaked incommensurable to his paltriness. A final directorial decision continues to shift our attention away from him, further downplaying his malevolent ‘genius’, and back to Othello and Desdemona, as two dancers fleetingly return them to life. The exquisite delicacy and tenderness of their movements is heart-breaking: it is an interlude that gives us time to dwell on the senselessness and the ugliness of what we have just witnessed.
I can already hear the objections to this take on Othello, and I am aware that my sensitivity to its portrayal of toxic masculinity runs the risk of side-lining considerations about race which must be part of our response to the play. Here too, though, I disagree with the comments I did hear on Saturday Review on the casting of this production, where both Emilia and Cassio (Aaron Pierre, in his impressive theatre debut) are black. It doesn’t bother me at all that Othello is marked out by André Holland’s American accent, and not by the colour of his skin. The existence of racism is obvious enough in the play’s language.
I am much more interested in seeing Sheila Atim and Aaron Pierre on stage than in puzzling over why this Iago, married to a black woman, hates Othello. And if puzzle we must, why then, Iago resents Othello because he has been passed over for a promotion, and Cassio has been appointed as the general’s lieutenant instead of him. Pierre’s youth, vigour and towering handsomeness – he is considerably taller than both Holland and Rylance – make Othello’s jealousy very convincing, while Iago’s determination to bring these two black men down is certainly not incompatible with his own marital circumstances.
A week on, and I know that this Othello will stay with me for a long time. Never before have I been so gripped by this play: Claire van Kampen’s production works for me because it asks us to rethink the dynamics between its principal characters. I should also add that never before have I been so close to the action. Physical proximity – the ability to see clearly the actors’ facial expressions, to perceive the subtleties in the performance – makes a tremendous difference in the public’s emotional involvement with what goes on on stage. In the end, I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t a groundling, and that a pillar impeded my view. It’s the magic of the Globe.
Othello is on at the Globe until 13 October.
Dr Stefania Ciocia is a Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. You can find her on Twitter as Gained in Translation @StefaniaCiocia.
 For a really interesting discussion of whether Othello is a racist play, check out Hugh Quarshie’s Looking for the Moor for The Shakespeare Sessions on BBC Radio 3. Quarshie, who has recently played Othello with the RSC, shares his qualms about taking on this role and talks to other actors of African descent who have given life to the Moor about their thoughts on the play. In tackling the issue of Othello’s consistency, Quarshie points out how all the women he interviewed had no difficulty in believing his violent burst of jealousy. As Bonnie Greer says, “the type is male”: Othello’s jealousy is tied in to masculinity, not to race.