In the programme for this new production of Othello, director Claire van Kampen states explicitly that she is aiming for a two-hour running time and a ‘heavy cut’ focused on ‘some rhetoric-heavy comment, and also some of Iago’s revelations of what he plans to do.’ The intention is to retain an element of surprise ahead of the searing final scenes. However, it is surely quite possible to retain tension and fascination without abbreviating the text substantially. Moreover the naturalistic approach adopted towards the text that remains does scant justice to the music of the verse. It results in poor, shapeless handling of the text by almost everyone, barring the players from an older generation with a different training.
There are suggestions of a specific setting that do not ever fully resolve. A large banner depicting St Mark hangs at the outset, and richly decorated costumes abound, but they never settle into a definite period. This diffuseness is typical of a production that contains a profusion of ideas and initiatives that never acquire the sharp definition of a governing concept. There is strangely little music in the production too, which is odd when a composer is directing. That said, the setting of the Willow Song is apt, poignant and delicate, and an important part of the gathering strength of the final scenes.
A lot then rests on the central performances if this production is to succeed, and here too the results are uneven and even paradoxical. The evening is at its best in the ensemble sections, whether in Venice or Cyprus. I have never seen the drinking scene in which Iago contrives Cassio and Roderigo to come to blows done better. Elsewhere, in the key monologues and dialogues of seduction and deception, the results are more uneven. As Desdemona, Jessica Warbeck chooses to play the role in a much more submissive and plaintive vein than is usual nowadays. This makes her very affecting in her final moments, and she has a real connection with Sheila Atim’s worldly-wise Emilia; but her disempowered, merely bemused reaction when Othello turns against her seems hard to explain or empathise with. Atim is wonderfully fierce in the truth-telling moments of the final act but otherwise is left fairly disengaged from the action, and we learn little of the dynamic of her marriage to Iago, which must surely be crucial in any production.
Any production of this play revolves around the effectiveness of the choices made in respect of Othello and Iago. The evocation of jealousy can be done in many different ways, but all of them at some level have to involve a strong element of plausible seduction on Iago’s part and a predisposition to suspicion on Othello’s. Unfortunately, despite isolated moments of telling insight from both Rylance and André Holland, this is not where we find ourselves.
Holland has a natural stage authority, and his Southern accent neatly references his status as an outsider in Venetian society. However, he looks too young and free from engrained cares of state and war for the role; and his gathering rage was too often incoherent and insufficiently projected through the rhetoric that Shakespeare deliberately provides as a shaping vehicle. Rylance’s portrayal of Iago is, you would expect from such an actor, meticulously thought through; but it does not go beyond being a sum of its various parts. The first point to note is how frenetically busy he is around the stage, which suggests both his controlling zeal but also the spirit of improvisation that supports Rylance’s reading of the character’s scheming. This is perfectly plausible as an interpretation, but it is undermined in the first-half at least by rushed, almost gabbled delivery of the text, that was not entirely audible, and a continuously off-hand, informal and apologetic reading of the insinuations planted in the Othello’s mind. It was simply hard to explain the immediate acceptance of the case by the Moor when presented in such an unpersuasive fashion.
The audience, however, was very persuaded by this production on press night; but as with the Hamlet earlier this year, the overall effect was more muted than it should be because the ambitions of all concerned were too modest. By playing it as a fast-moving narrative that cumulates into a harrowing tragedy and missing out the key psychological battles at its heart, it remained a two-dimensional play, the kind that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have written, rather than the troubling, knotty and difficult experience the text provides for.