Othello is a bananas insulting play. We don’t need to hold Shakespeare to the standards of modern society in terms of equality (mainly feminism (and racism) (okay all equality kinds)) because the 400 year difference in eras makes that a fool’s errand, and pretty much all of Shakespeare’s works can be excused as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘a product of its era’ in terms of equality and feminist ideals. But, hoo boy, Othello is a special one. It’s been a minute since I read it, so the details outside of ‘bad man convinces other man that wife is cheating and should die’ had fled my mind, but now that my memory has been refreshed, well there’s not much more I’d add to that gist. Not the most progressive stuff in this day and age, but the current production at the Globe, starring my man Mark Rylance, is faultless (other than the plot obvs), and it’s a must-see for any fans of Shakespeare, Mark, and/or theatre. What a fantastic production that will make you feel like you just got punched in the throat.
As for the plot aside from my barebones recounting of it above, I was a little confused at the beginning because, as a groundling, I was trying to get used to said boorish behavior of those around me. STOP TALKING IN THE THEATRE, EVERYONE! But I caught on. So there’s this skinny blond rich twink named Roderigo who is sad because he’s in love with a lady named Desdemona (sure you are) and she just secretly married a black man named Othello, and Roderigo is like how dare a woman marry who she loves. Roddy’s doing all his manly complaining to his friend Iago (dun dun DUNNNN) who is an officer, and Iago is like ‘okay I can get on board with hating this couple because Othello, the general of the army, just promoted this dude Cassio instead of me, even though I’m clearly a respectable soldier who isn’t proving Othello’s decision right or anything with my scheming, no way.’ Othello is a moor from Venice which means he is dark-skinned and everyone back then (lol not now no sir) was hella racist so that plays into the men’s distrust and dislike of him as well. They start plotting against Othello, although Roddy doesn’t really seem into the deathly parts but maybe I missed that because I was distracted by his appearance like he was waiting for the clubs to open in Barthelona. Iago is played by the great Mark Rylance in a real departure from his usual characters, since he is SO LOVABLE and Iago is NOT. His Iago contains some of Mark’s trademark awkwardness and is a little doofy so his evil is really not obvious. Sometimes his portrayal didn’t really jive for me because I was concerned that he was like confused from a head injury. It’s a very different take but it makes sense that no one would suspect this sometimes-bumbling fool to be plotting super bad things.
Othello was played by Andre Holland, the actor from ‘The Knick’ but really ‘Moonlight’ because I never watched ‘The Knick’. I’ve never seen or heard of him doing Shakespeare or anything of the sort before, and he was wonderful. He seemed so comfortable on this very challenging stage, and when you can hold your own against Mark Rylance, who kind of is the Globe theatre, you’re prettayyy awesome. Most of their supporting cast was great too. Jessica Warbeck’s Desdemona was solid, and given that I think Desdemona kind of sucks to play (she doesn’t do anything except be nice (and kind of bland) and then she dies and like isn’t mad) she seemed to be dedicated to her role. Aaron Pierre’s Cassio was one of my favorites, probably because he is the only decent man onstage. And let’s talk about Sheila Atim as Emilia, Iago’s wife. Not that I’d in a million years buy her married to Mark Rylance, but she is so magnetic and watchable in anything, even when she’s not singing. But they shoeshorned a few musical moments into this play literally just to make her sing (she did just win an Olivier for a musical), which I fully appreciated even if it was a little too shoehorny. But my god, she is so good. You kind of want to scream at Emilia for helping her husband with the whole planting the handkerchief scheme, and sure she doesn’t know that he is so wickedly scheming and she’s just having fun with her husband but like come on don’t be so daft. But you can’t be mad at Sheila Atim.
Also Sheila looked absolute FIRE in her space-age golden jumpsuit with shoulder pads straight out of the closet of a Star Trek Admiral’s closet. I almost yelled ‘fire’ too which is bad/illegal in a crowded theatre and extra bad considering this one’s burned down before but DAYUM. The costumer clearly loved Sheila and hated Jessica, though, because Desdemona’s Act II black velvet-looking gown was notttt flattering, mostly because it had my most-hated fashion don’t – cut outs in weird places. This dress fell victim to the worst culprit of all – the chest cutout, so somewhere between the neck and the cleavage there was an oval of missing fabric. THIS IS NOT A GUD FASHUN, EVERYONE. It’s actually really important to get the costumes right because in this instance it was so unattractive and misguided that for a second I was like ‘ugh kill it’ and then like, he did.
So let’s circle back now to the whole ‘Othello killed his wife because he thought she was cheating, but she wasn’t, so it’s sooo sad’ thing. Say this out loud with me: Even if she was cheating, she doesn’t deserve to die! It still would have been sad if Iago was right and they were having an affair because it would be a man taking justice into his own hands and really doing all he can to one-up his wife’s wrongdoing by doing a MURDER. It is not sad because an innocent woman died; it is sad because a woman died. I feel like Othello’s remorse at the end when he realizes Desdie wasn’t cheating mirrors John McCain’s famed town hall answer to that racist blonde woman’s question. In case you didn’t see the video that was widely used after his death to show that McCain was ‘one of the good Republicans’, a horrible woman said she didn’t trust Obama because she read that he was an Arab. McCain answered, “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man.’ And PEOPLE ARE USING THIS TO PROVE WHAT A SAINT HE WAS. The good answer in this situation, in case you too are a racist monster, is ‘He’s not an Arab but ARABS CAN BE GOOD PEOPLE TOO’, not ‘he’s not an Arab AND SO he’s a good person.’ MAN ALIVE (Or in this case, not (too soon?!)). Anyway, so I see a connection between this bonkers but ‘light-level’ racism being used to shore up McCain’s persona, and Othello’s ‘oh my god I shouldn’t have killed my wife, she was faithful to me after all’ realization. BOTH ARE THE WRONG TAKES, MEN.
And so this play leaves me infuriated, because the message seems to be that jealousy is bad, and you should trust your wife, and you should communicate better, when it should also include a bit about not killing anyone regardless of their wrongdoing. In the same summer I saw Carousel on Broadway – unaltered in its portrayal of a serial abuser, and so wrongheaded in this day and age – I can’t help but just sigh loudly and groan that men are trash. I am, however, very pleased with this production and this cast and the Globe’s return to faithful interpretations of classics, and I definitely recommend you see this if you can, but like, ughhh.