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What do you go and see Othello for? Because you are doing your A’levels and it’s a set text? Because you are visiting England and seeing some Shakespeare would seem to be an authentically English experience? Because you are an actor and you’ve got a mate in it? Fair enough. Job done, you’ll think as you exit this production at the Globe. Now, have I got time for a swift drink before I catch the train home?
Or do you go, as you should go to all theatre, hoping for an experience? Do you hope to forget yourself, to be transported, or entranced, saddened or wiped out? Above all, do you go to Othello to see something bigger than real life, where the language, the emotions, everything is on a larger scale and you exit disorientated, needing to stand for a second and scale down, before you head for the swift drink and the train home? You won’t enjoy this much.
Not that it’s bad, this production, it is worse, far worse than that … it is okay. Frankly, it is not helped by the Globe’s unadorned wooden stage and director Wilson Milam’s determination to keep everything, from the verse speaking, to the movement, to the lack of scenery and lighting, naturalistic and lacking in artifice. This production suffers from an entirely un-Elizabethan modesty. The Globe is nothing if not artificial – a pastiche wooden playhouse set down in 21st century London. It cannot just be an empty space, a ‘wooden ‘o’ with no previous; it is the one theatre in London where you cannot ignore your surroundings. It capitalizes on this, so it should also use it.
The character most affected by this naturalistic interpretation was that of Othello himself. Eamonn Walker brought a handsome presence to the role, but he was a retiring, likeable Moor; slipping on to the stage for his first entrance you hardly noticed him. Where was the grandeur, the bombast? At times, I admit, I could even have done with a little ham. Olivier may have overdone it, but it gave the play some spark. Walker’s soft voice didn’t lack clarity, but was too often downbeat, throwing the ends of sentences away. A shame with lines such as “…When I love thee not, Chaos is come again”. Fine actor as Walker is, we felt for Othello in his all too human jealousy, but we were never overawed by his passion.
The balance of the play too easily became over-weighted in favour of Tim McInnerny’s Iago. There is something endearing about this actor, even in this, Shakespeare’s least endearing role. He was best at the comedy, making a good double-act with Sam Crane’s wimpy Rodorigo [sic], forever popping up and making McInnerny double-take. His was an interestingly straightforward Iago. “Put money in thy purse” was sincerely urged and he convinced us that he was genuinely upset by the belief that his wife Aemilia [sic] had been fooling around with the Moor. Here was a sociable, lascivious Iago and not the shadowy, unfathomable creature of the night we are often given. Like all the actors, though, while he presented his body to us with wide-open arm movements he underestimated just how much you need to share your face with the audience on such a stage.
The female characters, however, I found miscast. Lorraine Burroughs brought a stature and nobility to Aemilia that would have made her better suited to playing the heroine. Zoë Tapper gave a ringing, clearly spoken performance as Desdemona, but played her as a strong, organising but rather ordinary little woman. There was no sense of it being difficult for her to stand before the powerful council of Venice (Act 1, scene 3) and proclaim her love for Othello and therefore no bravery involved. “Lay on my bed my wedding sheets” (Act 4, scene 2) was merely an instruction about the laundry and so fearful was the direction of any romantic prescience of death on her part that she came across as a bit slow on the uptake.
I sometimes wonder why actresses are still being cast against type, why a part that is written as a vulnerable, romantic girl always has to be played as a feisty modern woman. This has been going on for such a long time now and strikes me as really rather patronising to women, who come in all shapes and sizes, some of them vulnerable and romantic. In this case, it also damages the sense of the play.
Full marks, however, go to Bianca (Zawe Ashton) for being the only actor to actually use the full width of the stage; she dashed across it like a tornado. Here was some passion.
A modest, clearly spoken production then, no doubt an aid to your A-level revision but it won’t bring inspiration to your essays. It begs the question: Do we look for reality in Tragedy? How about a production that is bigger than life, that uses the artifice of this historical recreation of a theatre to make something flamboyant, something grand. As the audience roared their approval of the crazy, oh-so-wrong curtain-call which set a newly dead Desdemona grinning and bopping along to a dance with the rest of the cast, it struck me that what the Globe needs most of all is to beware of their customers. Don’t make theatre as a revision aid, nor for tourists nor for first-nighters. There is only one reason to go to Othello. Go to be amazed.
Claire Ingrams © 2007
Originally published on R&V 26-05-07
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