There are times watching “Othello” when one wonders if Shakespeare didn’t give his play the wrong name. Although famously the tragedy of a powerful man fatally ruined by jealousy, it’s Iago, not the title character, who drives the action. That’s certainly the case in Wilson Milam’s clear but unbalanced new production at the Globe.
With auds wrapped around three sides of the stage, the Globe offers unique opportunities for “Othello,” a play with almost as much direct address as “Hamlet.” And with Tim McInnerny pushing the comically sardonic side of Iago as he woos the audience in soliloquies and asides, theatergoers become not so much bystanders at Othello’s downfall as complicit characters.
There’s plenty of laughter as Iago sets up his plot by winding up his stooge Rodrigo. Neatly played by Sam Crane, lovestruck Rodrigo is more than usually wet. Superficially amusing though this is, the depiction eats away at the play’s structure. The harder Rodrigo is to fool, the stronger Iago appears — and this Rodrigo is a pushover.
Milam encourages McInnerny’s lightning switches between superficial charm and secret villainy. That makes for entertaining moments as Iago hoodwinks those around him, but the concentration on comic duplicity comes at the expense of tension. It’s not only Cassio (Nick Barber) who ought to see through so obvious a villain. Most problematic of all, the stakes are lowered with Othello himself (Eamonn Walker) so easily taken in.
Walker’s initially blustery Moor grows in stature as the production progresses, but he never once seems in danger of doubting “honest Iago,” who appears so easily to be running rings around him. This play should be an edge-of-the-seat thriller: Will he or won’t he get away with it? Adhering to Iago’s description of Othello as a “credulous fool” means a serious loss of drama.
Walker’s climactic scene is his strongest. Consumed by jealous rage, his murder of his wife is horribly convincing. It complements the power of the opening scenes where John Stahl’s impressively enraged Brabantio drips racist disgust at his daughter’s decision to marry the Moor.
In the intervening acts, however, Milam allows too much shouting. Not only do both leads sound hoarse and out of control at times, the detail of the language sometimes fails to register.
The outstanding exception to that are the women. Zawe Ashton is a suitably beady Bianca, but Zoe Tapper and Lorraine Burroughs walk away with the production.
The most complete performance comes from Tapper in the usually thankless role of Desdemona, a woman who loves, dies but barely lives. Dressed in Dick Bird’s beautiful Veronese-style Elizabethan-era costumes, Tapper’s grounded physical presence and well-supported voice bring sweet intelligence and focused energy to every line without ever appearing to milk the role. She’s plucky without being tomboyish and tender without losing resilience, making the most of her character’s limited power via quiet authority.
Burroughs is marvelously crisp as Emilia, puzzled at the way Iago spurns her, calmly dedicated to her mistress and vividly defiant in her climactic accusations.