On the page, “Othello” seems like a study in opposites: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, but the Old Globe’s production delivers unforeseen nuance. The results are tense, horrific, even funny.
Set in Venice and Cyprus, the story begins soon after Othello (Blair Underwood) secretly marries Desdemona (Kristen Connolly). Many are not pleased. Though Othello has distinguished himself in battle, he is a Moor and not fit to marry Desdemona. Brabantio (Mike Sears), Desdemona’s father, objects on racial grounds. Roderigo (Jonny Orsini) loves Desdemona and wants her for his own. But a Turkish fleet is sailing for Cyprus and Venice needs her best general. The marriage is sanctioned.
Iago (Richard Thomas) observes these events with sublime cunning. For reasons that are somewhat obscure, and perhaps irrelevant, he hates Othello. The marriage offers him the perfect opening to undo his foe.
Mercilessly, Iago sets to work, manipulating Othello, Roderigo and the general’s lieutenant, Michael Cassio (Noah Bean). He deceives Roderigo with the promise of Desdemona; plants viral jealousy in Othello’s brain and unravels Cassio altogether.
Iago may be the most ruthless, perhaps evil, villain in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet, Thomas invests him with an innate humanity that makes him seem — almost — likeable. Thomas’s Iago relishes the hunt, gleeful as each Machiavellian maneuver succeeds. With astounding skill, he entices each character to break with their obvious best interest. It’s like having a front row seat for original sin.
Underwood takes it from there, making Othello’s descent from loving husband to anxious cuckold seem eminently believable. Scenes that could easily descend into melodrama maintain their dignity.
Connolly excels as Desdemona, but it’s Angela Reed, as Iago’s wife Emilia, who steals the last act. The anguish in her voice, as the tragedy unfolds, chills.
Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein amply demonstrates his Shakespearean chops. In a show that could be inexorably bleak, he exposes moments of humor that only add to the tension. The creative use of percussion by musicians Jonathan Hepfer and Ryan Nestor drive it deeper. Small, beautiful touches jump out throughout the production, right down to the last moment.
The set, minimal to begin with, seems to erode as the play goes on. For long periods, there are only walls and a single chair, as if to accentuate Othello’s isolation.It would be easy to present Othello as a hero and Iago as a sociopath, but the Globe’s production finds a deeper, more ambiguous, interpretation. We get to be voyeurs, watching it unfold.