“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on”.
It’s a very human emotion, and one we all experience from time to time. For some, however, it can have tragic consequences, able to corrupt even the best of men.
Claire van Kampen directs William Shakespeare‘s ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, quite possibly the most famous fictional account of the damaging consequences of jealousy. The production provides a very tender portrayal of Shakespeare’s very human, yet ultimately flawed characters, chiefly concerning itself with such things as jealousy, revenge, insecurity, and reputation.
André Holland’s Othello is outstanding. Acutely charismatic, with a wondrous nobility, he is the embodiment of honour and valour, a truly great man. His early speeches, particularly his tale regarding the wooing of Desdemona, seduces his audience as it did her. Holland has a wonderful tone and, whilst showing an authoritative command of Shakespeare’s language, he spoke it with a softness and a gentleness that drew us in, that won the audience, his storytelling captivating. Opposite Jessica Warbeck’s spirited Desdemona, the two appear as a convincing newly-married couple, very much in love, utterly besotted with each other. They steal moments together, embracing, holding hands and kissing, so much so that at one point, the Doge of Venice has to call Othello’s name in order to attract his attention – so difficult does it prove to separate these two that have recently joined as one. This only serves to make Othello’s fall into jealous rage even more tragic, as his embraces turn to physical violence, which in turn, turns to murder. Initially willing to stake his “life upon her faith”, Othello’s fall is so heartbreaking, his character so different to when we are first introduced to him, one wonders how one so high, so mighty, so raised, so seemingly stable, could be brought so low, and with so little reason, but that he falls prey to monstrous jealousy.
Now a popular play, audiences of today are all too aware of the irony contained within and, when references were made here concerning the ‘honest nature’ of Iago, the were ripples of laughter among the audience. At the start of the play, Brabantio talks of Othello have bewitched his daughter, Desdemona. However, it appears to be Iago who truly is the ‘magician’ of the piece. It is he who bewitches us, he who has us under his spell.
Mark Rylance gives a truly expert turn as Iago. He is so utterly convincing in the role, he wins his audience over entirely, and we are embedded as deeply in his clutches as are the other characters. However, far from the archetypal villain, the callous, Machiavellian schemer, we are so used to seeing, Rylance’s Iago seemed to possess a humanity, one might even say a frailty, that allowed us to connect with the character on a deeper level, that meant the relationship he worked to establish with his audience was firmer, and different somehow, to usual, when audiences treat the character with caution, wary in the extreme. Rylance’s Iago wore in his jacket a white handkerchief which, every so often, he would take out and mop his upper lip. A nervous tick, perhaps hinting at some vulnerability?
As a result of the character’s soliloquies, the audience invariably connect with the character, as we become privy to his innermost thoughts. Here, however, Rylance goes beyond that, and his character not only invites the audience to become complicit in his plans, but he also interacts with us – he jokes with us, he makes us laugh, he builds a rapport, and we actually LIKE him for it, entering into a comic complicity. Unusually so, this Iago IS likeable, somewhat charming, in fact. As a result, it doesn’t feel as though we are being manipulated, which only makes his betrayal all the more shocking.
A natural Shakespearean performer, Rylance possess a mastery over the language of Shakespeare, and yet, he is very skilful when it comes to making this language his own, thereby lending to it a natural, conversational quality. His endearingly bumbling Iago occasionally stammering, tripping over his words, faltering, he takes the language and bends it to create the characteristics he wishes to portray, thereby causing said character to become distinct, different to those portrayals that have gone before, all adding to this masquerade of his being “honest Iago”.
In fact, so convincing is his Iago, Rylance seems pained at having to deliver his thoughts concerning Desdemona’s supposed unfaithfulness, her betrayal, and it seems as though his respect, his love, for his General, forces him to tell it. It is such respect, such love, that fools us all.
We can absolutely see why the other characters are so taken with Iago. In fact, not only can we see it, can we understand it, but we can perhaps relate to it, because here, there is a very real danger that we have been as well. His killing of Steffan Donnelly’s lovable yet rather pitiful Roderigo comes as such a shock, there is an audible gasp from the crowds, as Iago snaps the neck of this youth that seemed to hang on his every word. The ease, the callousness, with which he did this, actually seems out of character here. The fact that Iago here kills Roderigo in this way, with his own bare hands, as opposed to stabbing him as in the original text, is even more unsettling.
Rylance’s Iago certainly seems something of an opportunist. He doesn’t necessarily seem to be acting with malice aforethought – his plans do not seem premeditated. Rather, he seems to be reacting to events as they happen, speaking his thoughts to the audience as he thinks them. For instance, he rarely steps aside to speak to his audience, doesn’t purposely linger – rather, he is often left alone on stage, as other characters take their exit. He takes advantage of moments like this, to further notions of his revenge, to raise himself up, and to cause others to fall.
Before Rylance’s Iago delivered the line, “I hate the Moor’, he took a long pause, a pause filled with silence, as the audience seemed to anticipate this line, Iago’s hate piercing this silence. However, he didn’t seem to deliver it with malice – instead, it seemed simply matter-of-fact, gentle, almost, and yet, its effect was powerful as, whilst Iago continued to tell us of the rumours he had heard that Othello had lain with his wife, he appeared to be pained by this thought. This sets itself up in this production as perhaps the most vicious motivator for his wanting revenge on Othello. Regarding Desdemona, Rylance tenderly explains, “ “I do love her too; (a phrase he appears to utter tenderly and emphatically) Not out of absolute lust… For that I do suspect the Moor hath leap’d into me seat… nothing can or shall content my soul Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife; Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor At least into a jealousy so strong That judgement cannot cure”. Throughout, we question Iago’s motives, perhaps more so due to Rylance’s rounded character. WHY does he hate Othello? So convincing, so apparently genuine is his professed love for Othello, this is perhaps a more complex character than we might think. He often appears to display so genuine a sensitivity, a sympathy, “what’s he then that says [he] plays the villain?’. He certainly forces us to ask.
The very notion of jealousy seems to feature quite heavily in this production. Othello is, of course, synonymous with jealousy. However, Rylance’s Iago appears harbour a jealousy also, appearing to be quite possessive with regards to his wife, Emilia. Several times during the production, when Emilia is talking to a man, Iago is quick to step between them, and push the man away. For instance, when Cassio politely greets Emilia with a chaste kiss, Iago is quick to respond. Later, when Emilia is dancing with another man, Iago once again comes between them, and pushes said man away, evidence here of women like Emilia, and Desdemona, as possessions, as belonging to men, dominated by a patriarchal society.
Notably, when Emilia first hands Iago the handkerchief, he presses it to his nose and inhales, eyes closed. Later, when Desdemona stands accused by her husband, called ‘whore’ and ‘strumpet’, Iago pulls a chair closer to her, and helps her to sit, even offering her his own handkerchief. Is this a token, a measure, of his feelings for her? Could it be, that Iago is jealous of Othello? Jealous that Desdemona CHOSE Othello? Again, we can only guess at Iago’s motives, and Rylance keeps us guessing.
Aaron Pierre’s expertly admirable Cassio – his presence powerful and his speech striking – bears similarities to Holland’s Othello. Both men are honourable, both are valiant, both are great men – and yet, both are corrupted. Both fall prey to vice. Othello, to jealousy, and subsequently to rage, as Iago plays on his own insecurities. Cassio, to drink, which, when provoked by Roderigo, causes him to enter into a fight, wounding Montano in the process, and ultimately causing Othello to strip him of his rank as Lieutenant. His deep sense of sadness, of heartache, is explored as he rails, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial”. We cannot help but pity him, so moving, so heart-breakingly vivid, is Pierre’s portrayal. The reputation of Cassio, as with that of Othello, is “lost without without deserving”.
Sheila Atim’s Emilia is hugely impressive, the picture of serene strength. With few lines in the opening half of the play, her quiet presence is testament to her loyalty to Desdemona, and to her husband. However, Atim is formidable in the final scene, her presence noteworthy and her performance remarkable.
When readying Desdemona for bed, the two women harmonise during the ‘Willow Song’, a beautiful moment, and a very touching testament to the strength of their friendship. However, when Atim’s Emilia departs and her singing stops, Desdemona continues to sing. Now, however, no longer in company, her voice lowers, becomes somewhat shaky, her eyes fill with tears, and there comes a moment of acceptance – she realises she is about to die.
However, Warbeck’s Desdemona continues to plead her innocence to Othello, in a show of strength and dignity, remaining to him loyal, respectful and obedient. She is innocence personified, and so with her death, comes the death of such innocence. Her pleas fall of deaf ears, jealous rage clouding the reason of a very human man. When Othello kills her, she is sat on the edge of their bed – their wedding bed – and he strangles her from behind. This scene is hugely unsettling, visibly and audibly, and as Desdemona struggles and screams, the audience shift uncomfortably. Immediately full of remorse, Othello draws the curtains around the bed, unable to look upon what he has done.
Holland’s ‘It is the cause’ soliloquy, prior to his murdering of Desdemona, is very moving. His words are so pained, but the words of a man who truly believes that “she must die” – so deep-seated is his jealousy, he is convinced that the death of Desdemona is a necessary must.
At the end, it is through Emilia that the truth is known. Bold and determined, she tells of her husband’s treachery, and labels him as ‘villain’. When the question of the handkerchief is raised, regarding how it came to be in Cassio’s possession, there is a tragic moment of realisation in Atim’s Emilia as, physically horrified by the part she played, although unintentional, in Iago’s plot, she keels over, plagued by pangs of guilt and regret. Little could she foresee the destruction it would bring. Not only has she been betrayed, but she has betrayed, and her knowledge is this is truly heartbreaking. She drops to her knees and begins to pray. For Desdemona’s soul? Or her own, perhaps? Is she asking forgiveness. Or does there come a moment when she realises she is about to be killed?
Despite Iago claiming to have a foolish wife, after Emilia has handed Desdemona’s handkerchief to her husband, he drops to his knees at her feet, prostrating himself, recognising her value, recognising her loyalty. However, at the play’s close, when she will not be silenced by him, despite his sharp protests, when she reveals the truth and highlights her husband to be a villain, it would seem she is no longer of value to him – in fact, she has become a liability. Iago kills her, here by pouring poison in her ear. However, the fact that he had a vial of poison to hand is telling – perhaps he had seen that he might need it. As with his killing of Roderigo, he doesn’t hesitate, realising a desperate need to silence her, and once again we see an unfaltering callousness. Emilia hauled herself to the floor at the foot of the bed, upon which the bodies of Othello and Desdemona lie, the death of yet more innocence, as innocents are killed. However, in Iago, do we later sense a measure of regret? Of remorse? When he is later arrested and brought back on to the stage and pushed to his knees, hands bound behind his back, and is told to look at the suffering, at the deaths, he has caused, he seems somewhat defeated, his body heavy, crippled by the weight of what he has done, perhaps?
At the end of the production, Emilia steps towards the front of the stage, and once more begins to sing, a haunting, and powerfully moving, melody. Iago turns and lifts his head, stands slowly, his eyes fixed on her. The other charcters slowly make their way back onto the stage, including Othello and Desdemona, who gather at the back and sides of the stage. Meanwhile, two dancers engage in a beautiful pas de deux, their bodies intertwining, supporting each other, perhaps an echo of the love between Othello and Desdemona. The scene creates an added but beautiful poingnancy, as these dancers become the focus, the ending of the play perfectly and heartrendingly complemented.
The characters in this play are victims – Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo – whether it is obvious or not. Protagonists, they are doomed from the start. Each falls victim to something – whether jealousy, drunkenness, or each other. Whether Othello is a victim or not is often a divisive issue – some believe him to be foolish, destroyed by his own insecurities, easily manipulated. However, Holland’s beautiful portrayal of the character firmly establishes the character as a flawed, and therefore a doomed, protagonist, much deserving of pity. Rylance, for a time at least, manages to convince us that Iago himself is a victim – simply seeking revenge for a wrong that ‘may’ have been done to him.
Considered by some to be a racist play, the diverse cast here ensures that any element of racism, any question of race, is removed, without the need to alter or remove Shakespeare’s language, but here, there is little or no emphasis placed on terms and phrases relating to race or colour, and those that are used no longer carry the same weight. Othello is no longer the only black character here, and therefore, the production removes race as a reason for Iago’s dislike of Othello, and a motive for his revenge. However, in order that Othello might still be set apart from the other characters, might retain a sense of otherness, an American actor has been cast in Holland, and so it is his accent that distinguishes him, setting him apart as a foreigner. This diverse casting, in addition to the gender balance, in casting the Doge of Venice, Lodovico, and other people of the state, as female, the cast is one that is reflective of the multicultural society we are living in today, whilst giving a nod to such campaigns as ‘Me Too’, ‘Time’s Up’, and ‘50/50’.
Iago himself reminds us in the play that “Men are men; the best sometimes forget… men in rage strike those that wish them best”. ‘Men are men’. That is certainly true of the characters in this production. They are human, startlingly so. As such, they are susceptible to flaws – prone to jealousy, to rage, susceptible to corruption. By all accounts, characters Othello and Cassio are among the best of men. However, even the best of men can fall. And when they do, “chaos is come again”.
The production is one that reflects Shakespeare’s astute understanding of the timeless nature of the human condition, portraying perfectly the tragic characters – who are here infinitely more human than one might believe – who fall prey to the monster that is jealousy.
‘”Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful”.