I found home in an Othello performance: the magic of going to the theatre

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Image description: An illustration of a house inside the Globe Theatre

I love going to the theatre. I love lurking around in the foyer, engaging in an intense debate with myself on whether or not that programme is really worth £2. I love finding my seat (or standing space) and flipping through said programme, while secretly wanting to take a braggy photo of the stage for my Instagram but feeling too self-conscious to do so. I love when the performance begins, knowing that this night—the way the actors feel, the specific audience members, and each moment being real and live—will be unique. I love walking out with everyone else and queueing outside the cloakroom (if there is one), a little tired, a little dreamy, my cheeks flushed.

What I love most about theatre—good theatre, at least— is its ability to make me feel at home. How does one feel at home in a large public space, in the company of strangers, you ask?

What I love most about theatre—good theatre, at least— is its ability to make me feel at home.

I had my first theatrical experience in August 2018. I saw the Globe theatre’s production of Othello in London, which was directed by Claire van Kampen and featured André Holland, Mark Rylance, and Sheila Atim. I was seeing the play as a part of the Young Academics summer school run by the Globe. A few days before, 18-year old me had flown into London from Korea, determined to learn Shakespeare “properly” for the first time (I hadn’t been taught any Shakespeare or drama at school before) and prove myself a competent student of English, yet unsure whether a Korean kid with a questionable educational background in English was capable of any of that. (Little did I know, this was only the beginning of my impostor syndrome…many thanks Oxford!)

A few days before, 18-year old me had flown into London from Korea, determined to learn Shakespeare “properly” for the first time  and prove myself a competent student of English, yet unsure whether a Korean kid with a questionable educational background in English was capable of any of that.

So there I was, with my “groundling” ticket, nervously leaning on the wooden stage of the Globe and listening to my summer school course-mates talk as we waited for Othello to begin. This was it: I had to be able to catch the Shakespearean language uttered by the actors, I had to “get” the play; I had to be smart and good at English enough to understand it as well as the rest of the audience. I did not yet know the magic of theatre. Othello was a test for me.

Then Iago (Mark Rylance) and Roderigo (Steffan Donnelly) came on stage, and I realized instantaneously this was no “test.” This was fun—really fun. In the “wooden O” (the Shakespeare nerd’s nickname for the Globe), under the London sky turning orange in the summer dusk, the audience, the cast, and I were together transported to the world of theatre. We were in for a night of Othello that belonged only to us.

That intimacy, I guess, was what made me feel at home in that night of new experiences and foreign places. My insecurities and loneliness were brushed aside, and for those 3 hours I was a member of the audience—a “groundling”—interacting with the actors and the stage.

My insecurities and loneliness were brushed aside, and for those 3 hours I was a member of the audience—a “groundling”—interacting with the actors and the stage.

This is not to say it was an indulgent and comfortable experience—theatre challenges and questions, and Othello did as well. There was the challenge of standing up for 3 hours; there was the challenge of Iago’s character, played with unnerving and disarming charm by Mark Rylance; there was the challenge of processing the casting of Sheila Atim, a black actor, who, as Emilia cried out to Othello, “And you the blacker devil!”.  Both cast and audience faced these challenges: the cast had to make sure no mishaps occurred during those 3 hours as well as making sure they were interpreting Shakespeare’s words. The audience had to process and interact with this real-time performance. And these shared challenges made the night more special, more “ours”. It was like going on an adventure or trying to solve a problem together —and I felt an intense sense of belonging.

After the play ended, I lingered outside the Globe for some time, watching people discuss the show with excited voices as they left for home. I was a little tired, a little dreamy, and my cheeks were flushed. I’d come here to London on a sort of a quest to find out if I was “good enough” to study in the UK (specifically to compete amongst British students for Oxford, I have to admit…). I still wasn’t sure of that, but it didn’t matter so much now. I’d just felt such a strong sense of home at the Globe. Forget trying to get into Oxford; theatre was awesome.

After the play ended, I lingered outside the Globe for some time, watching people discuss the show with excited voices as they left for home. I was a little tired, a little dreamy, and my cheeks were flushed.

Eventually, I did get what I wanted: I’m studying English in Oxford, but with this new stage of my life came a new wave of fears and insecurities. Thankfully, though, I now know that theatre can help me through.

Image Credit: Josh Boddington, The Oxford Student