There are a lot more laughs here than Othello usually provokes. In their latest team-up, director Claire van Kampen and husband Mark Rylance turn Shakespeare’s tragedy into something like a farce, full of frantic physicality and, in the first half, fun.
Rather than being set in any particular context or period, the production seems to exist in its own fantastical world, mainly due to Jonathan Fensom’s costumes. Gold edges, huge collars and strange dimensions make them seem otherworldly.
But Rylance, visually more sober in a red hat and blue tunic, reels the production back into a depressing reality. He brings it back to bigotry today.
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. He brings a kind of Brexiteer vibe to the character, a Middle England reactionary who hates Othello because he’s foreign – here, American.
It’s easy to see where his hatred of Andre Holland’s Othello comes from. 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. At one point they’re just snogging at the side of the stage.
So, Rylance shows how Iago’s impotence and provincialism turn into bitterness. Constantly pacing around the stage, blustering and fretting, he stops properly for the first time when he says ‘I hate the Moor’. And it’s a line he states quietly, sadly, like it’s a universal truth, and don’t we all agree.
It’s the pleasant, completely unthreatening exterior that’s the killer. Rylance then slowly unpeels the character until it becomes clear that the smiles, the wide eyes and the goofiness are a thin coating over his tortured, twisted feelings.
As Desdemona’s assistant Emilia, a character explored throughout Michelle Terry’s inaugural season, Sheila Atim continues to be an extraordinarily captivating actor.
It’s a shame she’s barely in the first half, but she makes up for it by completely stealing the play’s climax. She’s fiercely protective of Desdemona, and their friendship comes across particularly poignantly in one of Desdemona’s final moments. As Emilia dresses her, they sing a song and have a laugh, and the lightness and love of the scene is overcast with the knowledge of what comes next for them both.
The only snag is that there is very little spark in the relationship between Iago and Emilia. Individually excellent, they just don’t marry well.
Van Kampen’s production is full of raucousness and laughter but, just as in one scene when Cassio suddenly flips from being a merry drunk to a violent drunk, so the production entices by being cheery – until it’s not.
The cast, and particularly Rylance, play so much of it like a farce, and in doing so show how knife-edged that division is between humour and horror.