Mark Rylance is an actor so unparalleled that we’ll gladly see him anytime, anywhere, in any role he should wish to undertake. This is not accidental but earned. Other luminaries are content to thrive by carefully sticking to what it is they do so well; Rylance—whose Broadway visits include stints as a bumbling philanderer in Boeing-Boeing, a raucous roisterer in Jerusalem, and an altogether overwhelming Olivia in Twelfth Night, each of which earned him Tonys—has now turned to Iago in Othello. This as a return visit to Shakespeare’s Globe, the estimable playhouse for which he formerly served as artistic director.
Rylance gives us an Iago unlike others we might have seen or imagined. No Machiavellian schemer here; this Iago seems practically subservient to his betters. (For a good deal of the time, director Claire van Kampen has him schlepping heavy items: a banner on a 12-foot pole, a case of wine bottles, a table and camp chairs.) Let other Iagos stand on the side of the stage in a spotlight glaring malevolently; this fellow, a sad sack in turquoise tunic and scarlet cap with a mop of a mustache, just seems to be trying to serve his commander. Seeing as how this is Othello, after all, and this is Rylance, you can be sure that the actor manages to electrify the stage with his performance.
But what of Othello (the character, and the play as well)? The Moor is front and center, of course, in the form of American actor André Holland (who was impressive both in the film Moonlight and as Youngblood in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of August Wilson’s Jitney). Holland does quite well, yes; but there’s only so much you can do with Rylance running circles around you. (Rylance not only runs circles; he has two dance sections in which he cavorts like a loose-limbed, rubber-hipped Jiminy Cricket. Not traditionally Shakespearean, perhaps, but it works!)
Let it be noted that while we happily live in a world where actors are cast according to merit rather than race, this is a case in which the playwright clearly makes the case that the African Othello is isolated in a world of “white” characters. There are times in group scenes, here, when one can’t immediately identify just who is Othello, which certainly defeats the purpose. I suspect this is more an issue of direction than casting, but it does work to prevent this Othello from dominating the stage.
Jessica Warbeck holds her own as Desdemona; like Holland, though, she is overshadowed by her aide. Sheila Atim—looking something like a string bean wrapped in mustard as gowned by Jonathan Fensom—is striking as Emilia, so much so that we might gladly sit through a Stoppardian sequel along the lines of Desdemona and Othello Are Dead. All told, Rylance makes something altogether different and intriguing out of the text; only just where is Othello, the character and the play?
Two-and-a-half hours of weather talk might not sound especially invigorating. The biggest reward of David Haig’s Pressure is that it is. Invigorating, involving, and so suspenseful that as the action comes to a climax, you can barely hear a pin drop. Or the barometer, for that matter.
Haig, a popular British character actor, has seen fit to write himself the historical role of Dr. James Stagg, the Scottish weather forecaster who played a key role in the planning of D-Day, dramatized here. He is sent to counsel General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) in the days before the Normandy invasion, the big question: Will it rain? The cocky American expert, Colonel Irving P. Krick (Philip Cairns) assures Ike that it’s blue skies ahead. Stagg, though, interprets wall-sized weather maps that slowly come in to the war room and determines that the Channel will see hurricane-force gales on the morning of the surprise invasion, drowning the massed Allied forces and risking the entire war effort. The enterprise is closely watched by Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers), Eisenhower’s aide-de-camp, chauffeur, and warmer of bedsheets. Haig has done a canny job in contriving such a thorny and meaty role for himself to play. He is well matched by Sinclair’s Eisenhower, while Rogers serves to ease the way and accent hidden beneath the surface the humanity of the two men.
Since Stagg is dour and non-personable, we can only assume that he is correct while Ike (played like a bat out of John Wayne) rails against the unfavorable forecast. Wind-speed force and eye-of-the-storm specifications could only be culled from far-flung weather balloons and the like, in these days before the Weather Channel, so much of the action consists of the characters impatiently waiting for the next readings to be compiled five hours later.
It seems odd to hesitate to spill the meteorological beans at this late date; the D-Day invasion did proceed and succeed, as even today’s least-educated playgoer is hopefully aware. But not without great drama, and not according to schedule, and not without Stagg saving the day and the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of servicemen. In this manner, watching Pressure is not unlike watching the musical 1776. We know in advance how it is going to work out. The magic is in the manner in which the playwright, director (John Dove, who recently guided Mark Rylance through Farinelli and the King) and the rest spin the tale. They do so in exhilarating fashion in Pressure.
As the action winds down, Stagg innocently asks “How could the weather ever be boring?” This gets a big and appreciative laugh, followed by widespread applause from an audience who has spent the last hour tensely leaning forward in their seats hanging upon ever word and every flash of lightning.
Othello opened August 1, 2018, at Shakespeare’s Globe (London) and runs through October 13. Tickets and information: shakespearesglobe.com
Pressure opened June 12, 2018, at the Ambassadors Theatre (London) and runs through September 1. Tickets and information: pressureplay.co.uk