Rylance returns. Sir Mark, the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe when it opened its doors in the mid-1990s, is treading the boards of his beloved wooden O once again, playing Iago in Claire van Kampen’s production of Othello.
Rylance has won them all: Oscars, Oliviers, Tonys, BAFTAs, the lot, most memorably for his spectacular performance as Johnny Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. His classical roles on the South Bank – Henry V, Hamlet, Richards II and III, Olivia in an all-male Twelfth Night, Philip V of Spain in Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King – are fondly remembered.
He’s joined here, somewhat unexpectedly, by American actor Andre Holland, best known in Britain for his role in the 2016 Oscar-winning Moonlight.
But does Holland have the acting chops to take on Othello in Shakespeare’s own back yard? Will Van Kampen’s production provide a highlight of Michelle Terry’s post-Rice programming. Will Rylance roll back the years and reign supreme on the South Bank again?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Rylance has seen his screen career blossom in recent years, with acclaimed roles in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk alongside stage star turns in Farinelli and the King and Nice Fish. Does he still have that special spark that made his Globe performances so special, though?
Most critics think he does, and most find his interpretation of Iago something of a revelation.
“Rylance is a great Shakespearean actor because he refuses to be the great Shakespearean actor,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “His manner is often daringly offhand, he falters across lines, at times plays the fool. He weaponises that customary gentleness of his so that Iago isn’t an overt schemer, even in his soliloquies; his motivation is a mystery even to himself.”
“On Rylance’s lips, Shakespeare’s language acquires an ease and naturalism that renews and reinvigorates our understanding,” praises Laura Barnett (Observer, ★★★★). “We catch every venomous word even as he whispers.”
“No actor rivals his genius for working the Globe’s inn-yard space – establishing an understated comic complicity with the audience that can then be chillingly subverted at will,” lauds Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★). “Here, Iago’s diabolical plot to destroy the hero unfolds with a frenetic, farcical edge. It’s not the coolly premeditated design of a master-strategist, but a grubbier, hand-to-mouth improvisation.”
“He flips the figure of Iago on his head,” agrees Matt Trueman (Variety). “Instead of a master manipulator pulling on Othello’s puppet strings, he gives us a lowly, servile soldier outsmarting his superior officer. It’s an idiosyncratic, daredevil performance.”
He’s superb in a “deliberately down-at-heel performance” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), while for Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), it’s “a larky performance but also a wily one, which invites us to notice how often Iago darkly echoes other people’s words — and at the same time highlights the audience’s complicity in his devious bigotry”.
“A cheerful Iago, he’s the sort of man you might have a pleasant chat with on a train, but then he’ll start talking about how he hates foreigners,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “He brings a kind of Brexiteer vibe to the character, a Middle England reactionary who hates Othello because he’s foreign.”
“It’s a clever interpretation of a character whose name has become a byword for moral corruption, one I probably enjoyed more in theory or retrospect than when I was actually watching it,” ponders Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt). “Rylance’s performance plants Iago right in the middle of normal, borderline-provincial, life. We all know that charming, mild eccentric who turns out to be far less cuddly than their exterior suggests.”
“He used to run the Globe, and he still owns this space, understands it in his bones, and he owns Shakespeare’s language too, living inside it so comfortably that he makes it as easy and effortless as breathing,” Crompton writes. “But his interpretation of Iago is so idiosyncratic a performance that it all but unhinges the play.”
“Far from being chilling, this moustachioed, flapping-trousered Iago is a Charlie Chaplin chump,” says Letts. “It may force the lesson of treachery back on the audience itself. But it robs the play of its menace and denies an already pared-back production the theatricality of palpable evil.”
“He just isn’t menacing enough,” concurs De Lisle. “He’s a funny little man in a red hat and a big moustache; when he takes off his military jacket, he resembles nothing so much as Mario.”
But if playing Iago at the Globe is familiar territory for Rylance, playing Othello there is decidedly not for his co-star Andre Holland. Considering the play’s use of race uncomfortable, Holland has deliberately stayed away from the role until now.
Some critics don’t seem to have a problem with his performance. He’s got “charisma to spare” according to Taylor, he’s “the most eloquent and erudite character” according to Lukowski, and he “makes his presence felt through an old-world solemnity of movement, poise and gracefulness” according to Cavendish.
“When Holland steps slowly, purposefully on to the stage and takes stock of the audience, there’s such a sense of authority about him. Everyone likes him, or fancies him, and he’s really passionately in love with Desdemona,” describes Bano. “At one point they’re just snogging at the side of the stage.”
“Holland produces a skilled, sensitive performance, one that suggests he’d be great to see cast in other Shakespeare productions,” writes Waugh. “The words roll out his mouth with a gentle naturalism that retains the poetic qualities of the original script.”
Some critics aren’t totally convinced, however, his delivery in particular proving a sticking point. “He exudes a majestic dignity, a natural authority and an uncomplicated devotion to Desdemona: when he says he wooed her with ‘a world of sighs’, he caresses the language beautifully,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★).
“But while Holland acts the part well, he underplays what George Bernard Shaw called Othello’s ‘word-music’,” he continues. “When Othello asks to be washed in ‘steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’, the voice should thunder in a way that Mr Holland’s naturalistic performance doesn’t allow.”
“He’s an interesting choice for the part, straight-forward and sexy, encompassing the crowd in his sense of his own good fortune,” chimes Crompton. “But faced with such an innocuous opponent, his descent from decency and love into madness and murder seems even more difficult to understand than usual.”
“He can’t find the deeper register of tragedy,” she continues. “His rolling Southern tones are better with prose than poetry.”
Rylance and Holland both divide critics to a degree, then, but what about Claire van Kampen’s production? Does it provide a highlight of Michelle Terry’s early tenure as artistic director?
Michael Billington thinks so, principally because of the staging’s straightforwardness. “I have some reservations but, in an age of concept-driven Shakespeare, it is refreshing to find a show that puts the emphasis squarely on the play and the acting,” he contends, while Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) simply writes: “I am happy to report that the show is gimmick-free.”
“We are firmly back in traditional Globe territory, with minimal set and props, era-appropriate music, and sumptuous costumes evoking 17th-century Venice and Cyprus,” confirms Barnett. “The effect, for the most part, is galvanising.”
For Trueman, meanwhile, this is “an incisive Othello for our times”. “This is an Othello for the era of identity politics and intersectionality,” he writes. “An Othello that’s all about race but as rooted in resentment as outright racism. It’s keenly attuned to the structural hierarchies of gender and class, too.”
Other critics are less fond of Van Kampen’s approach, thinking it’s just a little too tame.
“There have been recent adventurous accounts of this tragedy such as the one in Manchester that put the spotlight on gender by re-imagining Othello as an out lesbian army commander and the one in Stratford, in which Iago was black too, seething at the assimilationist approach that has caused Othello to promote a spuriously liberal white man over him,” explains Taylor. “Van Kampen’s production is too lacking in specific context to attempt anything so daring.”
“The problem is that in a staging as plain as this, with minimal props and lighting, the actors are very exposed,” suggests Crompton. “For all the anticipation, this Othello is a disappointment, enjoyable moment to moment but never moving or revelatory.”
A rack of four-star reviews suggests that Rylance’s return to the Globe is a successful one. Some aren’t so sure, but most critics think his interpretation of Iago is unexpected and inspired. Classic Rylance, in other words.
There’s less certainty about Holland’s performance as Othello – reviewers are divided over his naturalistic approach – and about Van Kampen’s production as a whole. It pleases the purists, it seems, but leaves others a little unsatisfied.