When you are anticipating to see, or to use Mark Rylance’s preferred term for experiencing a Shakespeare play, to hear the award-winning actor himself on stage, you know you’re in for a treat. Our excitement was therefore sky high as we attended a performance of Claire van Kampen’s production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe on Saturday 29 September.
As an actor who was also the first artistic director of the Globe in the mid 1990’s, Rylance understands better than anyone the spirit of the company and its values. He offered a spectacular performance, sliding seamlessly into the scheming character of Iago- one of Shakespeare’s most notorious rogues. He has a unique ability to make the audience gape at his character’s deceitful and scheming nature, and moments later dance along with him during the end-of-the-play the jig.
The jig reminds you as a member of the audience that the Globe is an experience in itself. One of the perks of the way the theatre is set, is that you can stand so close to the stage as to even be able to lean on it if you wish to. The Globe is in its nature very aware of the role that technical elements have on a play. The position of the stage itself, the lighting, and even the costumes that actors wear are not mere technicalities in theatre, but a fundamental aspect of how the audience experiences the play, and the extent to which one is able to interact with the characters.
The Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe, Dr Farah Karim-Cooper recently told The Telegraph that “Using the same lighting and stage design as you do for white actors puts actors of colour at a disadvantage. There is a danger with traditionally dark, tragic, stage settings, that actors of colour merge into the background.” It is not enough to give a diverse cast the same options if those options are not equal in the opportunities they create for the actors to give their best performance.
In regards to this, this staging of Othello was a major success for the Globe. Particularly striking was Emilia’s character, played by the spellbinding Sheila Atim. Atim was dressed in a functional tunic-sleeved amber pantsuit, enabling her to truly become the vivacious character that speaks her mind and uses body language to convey her frustration at the men who seem to always be in some kind of trouble.
Perhaps this is not how Shakespeare would have done it. According to Karim-Cooper, characters in Shakespearean tragedies often wear dark and, in the case of the female characters, often extremely tight costumes. But this attire would simply not work with Emilia’s character, and the ability of the producers to recognize and cater to this fact had a defining effect on the way her character took the center stage.
Atim was not alone in challenging the typical portrayal of her character in a subtle yet extremely effective manner. André Holland impressed with the subtle and reserved way in which he portrayed the progressive deterioration of Othello’s character into jealousy- induced madness. For the audience, this interpretation of the role leaves you wondering: what was the intention behind this diversion from the traditional portrayal of Othello’s neurotic decline? In what ways does this speak to themes of race and racial stereotypes that are explored in the play?
In a lecture published in 1998, the British- Ghanaian actor Hugh Quarshie stated: ‘Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor.’ In saying this, Quarshie was suggesting that casting a black actor to play this role risks a potential validation of the racial stereotypes that can be found in the play.
The truth is, it is neither right nor in any sense helpful to have a white actor take on the role of a black character in the world of theatre, which, despite some progress being made, still lags behind in diversity and opportunities. André Holland’s performance itself is perhaps a solution to this dilemma: through his acting, Holland constructs an identity for Othello which dismantles any potential compliance with these stereotypes in a revolutionary theatrical portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters.