It seemed oddly appropriate to watch a production of Othello on a day which began with me turning the corner outside the Court of Appeal to find three vans full of police. They were there in case violence broke out at the appeal hearing of the far-right agitator Tommy Robinson, jailed for prejudicing the trial of Asian men accused of rape. We all know why the far right tries to publicise such cases: not through a feminist interest in male violence, but to foster a racist narrative about the threat posed to “our” – white – women by dark-skinned men. (In reality, a woman is most likely to be raped by a man she knows.)
A similar energy drives the plot of Othello. An “old black ram is tupping your white ewe”, Iago tells Desdemona’s father Brabantio at the start. The Moor, he claims later, “hath leaped into my seat” – seduced his wife, Emilia. Male status is expressed through control of women, and the threat posed by Othello is magnified by his blackness.
It is strange, then, that the Globe’s production feels oddly depoliticised. It’s not cast entirely race-blind – a white Othello would be pushing it, even for the Michelle Terry regime’s desire to smash casting boundaries – but having the Duke of Venice’s servants played by black actors, and giving Iago a black wife (the excellent Sheila Atim) muddies the racial politics. Instead, director Claire van Kampen explains in the programme, Othello’s outsider status is signalled by the casting of American actor André Holland, while the rest of the cast have British accents. It’s plausible, but lacks the immediacy of visual difference.
The production is also oddly detragified, if that’s a word I’m allowed to coin. Mark Rylance’s Iago gets a laugh when he suggests strangling Desdemona instead of stabbing her; moments after three big stage deaths end the play, the entire cast comes back out for a rousing salsa. Hola! Intimate partner violence has never felt so rhythmic! Talking of which, it’s brave to cast a Desdemona who is taller than her Othello. Come on, I thought as she surrendered to being strangled, you could have him in a fair fight.
The lack of clarity in character and tone is echoed by the mish-mash of costumes. While Atim is feline in Grace Jones-esque catsuits and Jessica Warbeck’s Desdemona wears unflattering floaty bridesmaid dresses, Rylance’s red flat cap and moustache reminded me of Super Mario. It’s-a-me, Iago.
Set against this, the production has other merits. It’s gimmick-free. It never drags. The party scene is riotous. Rylance is a mesmerising performer, and he knows the Globe stage and Shakespeare’s verse so well that he works them both with beautiful lightness. Holland, though unable to compete in wattage terms, brings out Othello’s early dignity and eloquence, although he is never entirely convincing as a man driven mad by jealousy. Elsewhere, Steffan Donnelly (Roderigo) delivers a quietly impressive performance, while it’s hard to believe that Aaron Pierre is making his professional stage debut as Cassio. He’s bullish and sexy; here, at least, you understand what has provoked the green-eyed monster.
Meanwhile, over at the National, Home, I’m Darling suffers a different problem. It wants to make political points, but never quite lands them. Katherine Parkinson’s Judy has given up her job to be a full-time domestic goddess. But that’s not the end of it. She’s gone full 1950s, wearing the big petticoats and the fur stoles, even at home, and decanting Tesco Finest flour into mason jars.
I so wanted to love this play. The premise is intriguing, because clearly there are women for whom the housewife era seems like a stress-free paradise rather than a monotonous prison. Judy’s mother Sylvia, a Greenham Common type, articulates the counter-view: you wouldn’t love the 1950s so much if you’d had to live through them. “My poor mother,” she declaims, outlining the suffocating conformity and small-mindedness she remembers. “Frightened of a yoghurt.”
But Laura Wade’s play founders on the lack of a plausible motivation for Judy’s retreat into Retro Suburbia. It isn’t enforced by her husband Johnny, who started as a vintage enthusiast but now finds his wife’s self-abasement – expressed through putting on his slippers for him when he comes home – faintly embarrassing. And although Parkinson is a fine comic actor, she doesn’t get a chance to show us the demented nature of Judy’s escapism. That tiny curtain on the milk is surely a sign of mental illness.
Inevitably, I was reminded of the Young Vic’s recent production of Fun Home, where the narrator’s father channels his repressed homosexuality and dissatisfaction with small-town American life into restoring the family home to its antebellum splendour. There, the set opened out halfway through to reveal yet more geegaws, showing us the full extent of Bruce Bechdel’s retreat into a fantasy of the past. Anna Fleischle’s static doll’s house set is gorgeous, but it cannot compete, and overall the production feels as bloodless as Judy’s pastel interiors.
Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1
Home, I’m Darling
National Theatre, London SE1
This article appears in the 08 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State