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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Directed by long-time Globe composer-in-residence Claire Van Kampen (Bill Barclay directs the music), features routines choreographed by Antonia Francseschi. In Jonathan Fensom’s design we’re beguiled by brief spectacle. Fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown are required at several points.


Where should Othello go? In this musicianly account by director and long-time Globe composer-in-residence Claire Van Kampen, Othello’s treated symphonically, though paradoxically sparing of music save at three key points.


After some variably-voiced productions one shining feature too is audibility: this is one of the clearest-voiced Globe productions of Shakespeare this year. That’s not just because Mark Rylance anchors everything as Iago, though that’s one draw.


It’s multi-voiced as Venice too, that super-diverse city echoed in this production where difference is accent. That’s where Alabama-born André Holland deliberately lets his natural southern accent through like a naturalistic top-note on forceful English vocables elsewhere. He’s musical too, and filters delicate shadings of poetry, though lacks the roar of pomp and bitter circumstance to edge his delivery.


It’s all literally at rattling speed. With Jonathan Fensom’s design we’re beguiled by brief spectacle. He drives a no-props stage brilliantly hedged with cannon above, a massive red-gold sail as a flag drooped from the balcony, with the clattering arrival via sail-carts of characters through the groundlings as the Cyprus storm abates. Bar that it’s simply a table, and a lute plucked by Iago, who carries on a beer crate as glug-bait.


Bill Barclay directs Van Kampen’s music where Sheila Atim’s Emelia for one provides a magnificent vocal lead. There’s the drunken revels anchoring one where a chorus are deployed. It’s echoed by the dance-off – both these routines choreographed by Antonia Francseschi. Delicacy arrives with Atim and Jessica Warbeck’s Desdemona in a haunting setting of the Willow Song. Rylance’s Iago too finds himself on his tuneable lute.


Van Kampen clears everything for a ‘heavy cut’ Othello where dispatch and fleetness rule a two hour forty-five running-time, where the Globe house feel lies strongly on a production whose accent pushes to comedic ends. Indeed laughter’s everywhere apparent to a degree rarely seen in Shakespearean tragedy, even here.


Rylance alone positions himself adroitly and sets the tone in a fascinating ‘villein’ deadpan. ‘Honest in Iago’ is William Empson’s devastating classic analysis of the way the ruling classes refer to an inferior as ‘honest’; something Doges are never called and rarely deserve. It’s significantly used of women too in the early modern period. It seems Rylance builds his fast-thinking demonic impro from ground resentment upwards. He doesn’t think strategically like Richard III since he no luxury or training to; but he commands others, and us.


His uniform, not the Renaissance garb of others (like Roderigo) suggests a Ruritanian corporal, blue tunic, yellow piping, with a red-peaked cap as skew as his period. It brightens comedy and darkens counsel, a deliberate misdirection.


There’s beguiling comedy in his Iago, more than the two hours-traffic with groundlings, yet less since his speeches are heavily cut – for instance after ‘divinity of hell!’ where he’s just got going. Van Kampen’s accent is on a fluid, swift-changing situation gradually running out of control, though chillingly Iago reaches his ends when his silence marks a ground zero victory.


Steffan Donnelly’s Roderigo, his first victim, is winning here: not the dolt of traditional foolscap whimpering, but when allowed to speak as here with clarity talking some sense and revealing himself as little worse than callow. All right he’s an idiot to be beguiled thrice over, and can hardly have witnessed his misused jewels’ absence cooped up as he’s meant to have been (he’s let out of a hatch by Rylance). But his straightforward handsome shirt and regular address render him a most believable Roderigo.


Their first colloquy leads straight into some of the best scenes, where Brabantio-baiting (William Chubb, stiff-voiced unyielding and vertical) takes us through Holland’s regal entry and the work of Catherine Bailey’s Doge (her first of two roles). These scenes are laid out with exemplary clarity.


Second victim Aaron Pierre’s stentorian towering Cassio so apparently outclasses Rylance’s shifty Iago that his lieutenant status seems hardly in doubt and Rylance insinuates in ‘honest’ guise as much as a survival tactic. Pierre towers over everyone else too apart from Atim, making his petition more an act of great restraint. He’s properly humble before Holland’s Othello but his great strength lies in the revelatory power of the drinking scene. Not only is this ramped up with a superb chorus – Micah Loubon, Ira Mandela Siobhan and Clemmie Sveaas specifically named ‘Chorus’ – where everyone else (notably Atim) lead carousal; but Pierre proves thrillingly dangerous. It adds a dimension to more conventionally foppish Cassios who swallow Castigilione’s Book of the Courtier as much as Iago has wolfed down Machiavelli. Except there’s no wolfing with Rylance’s tactics: he patently, equally thrillingly, lacks strategy. Especially when shorn as here of inwardness.


One thing is denied this Cassio. The resolving exchange: ‘Dear general, I never gave you cause’/Othello: ‘I do believe it and I ask your pardon’ is cut. Instead, Holland tosses his general’s jacket at Pierre’s feet, robbing resolution for both and a tithe of greatness from Othello.


Warbeck’s Desdemona comes slant to the play. There’s been a late run of small-voiced Desdemonas elsewhere and Warbeck’s clarity is most welcome, as is her patent openness, warmth and clear sense of justice. More than a touch comedic, joyful even, she’d make a fine Celia or even Rosalind, and breathes that air. Hip-swinging and sexy supplications though bespeak an experienced young woman. These aren’t quite Desdemona: even after her marriage night. It stretches credulity that this Desdemona would so meekly accept abuse – it’s frighteningly direct here too (credit to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown).


Warbeck can sing too though, and she and Atim’s Emilia certainly centre a still point in a whirligig of action. Atim’s Emilia seems so commanding – like Pierre’s Cassio – you feel she should scent out her husband’s villainy or speak up sooner. you don’t quite believe she’d so easily bend to her husband’s will about the handkerchief. The period dynamics suggest this could be the case, but that doesn’t obtain here. Atim rises superbly to the climactic moments of the last two acts, though there’s an access of subtlety not possible here.


Holland’s Othello is a reading of quiet nobility, a man unfazed even by the drinking riot, till he’s ‘perpelx’d in the extreme’ though then too readily, fractured and formed by military loyalties. Of a man incapable of breaking out of that straitjacket ‘since these arms of mine had seven years pith’ we’re given less detail. His fit isn’t a prone one. He hunkers down doubled but eventually rises as if to fit the production’s velocity. Holland allows his twang to increase through the performance, as if somehow dropping the Venice-taught veneer under stress. Most potent of all is his contrasting savagery: it’s reserved for Desdemona and finally, properly, Iago.


Bailey’s Doge is again memorable (another fine singer) alongside Badria Timimi’s Lodovica for suggesting an authoritative gentility amongst military giants, commanding sotto voce. It works because culturally it exaggerates the truth: frail old reverent signeurs no physical match but dominating of course.


Bailey’s on magnificent form as Bianca too, flouncing and projecting a wholly different liberated woman; the one who wins through to the end and since he’s now wounded and grounded, able to work on Cassio. She’s a highlight of this production.


It’s a symphonically scored production too, revelatory in class and sometimes gender politics, as well as recalibrating gender as a different pitch of another kind of conflict. With Rylance and Holland leading a house-wise production it’ll please some more than those who look for the gradual winding up and terrible release of Othello as pure tragedy. This isn’t that. It’s a singing-through of themes and class structures, gender conflict and stripping-down to essences Van Kampen has uncovered. They’re fresh, and if not everything’s here – the inwardness, the self-interrogation and sheer claustrophobia – they’re also rich enough to lay new foundations. Othello will never quite seem the same again; that’s an achievement and a marker.