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The net that shall enmesh them all.— Iago
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor as Iago.
(Photo: Johan Persson)
In one of the most anticipated London productions of the year, cast against type, Hollywood actor Ewan McGregor takes the role of the quietly, villainous Iago in Shakespeare's Othello at the Donmar Warehouse. Michael Grandage's mysterious production seems a fairly traditional reading of the play with only our imagination to provide us with clues as to the motivation of this unremorseful character.

What Grandage has done is to strip away the militarism of the play, no uniforms, no soldierly celebrations and played in seventeenth century costume, Iago's clothes show no difference of rank from those of Cassio, or even Othello, when the Moor is dressed in European clothes. Instead, and here the chosen programme notes from Professor Russell Jackson may give us a clue, he is concentrating on political crisis and chaos and religion. Iago is maybe jealous of Othello's marriage to Desdemona, not because he loves Desdemona but because he loves Othello.

The racial prejudice of the play is brought out as, no matter how celebrated a soldier, Desdemona's choice of him as a husband is one which would have seemed very strange to seventeenth century eyes. The "thick lips" speech shocks us in its blatant hatred and racism. We have the contrast between black and white and yet Othello is not black hearted; his sin, if any, is that he is easily duped.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a young man who doesn't seem too young to play the Moor. Othello's blind reliance on Iago is based on his faith in the integrity of his manservant. We lose count in the play of the number of times Othello refers to him, deeply ironically as it turns out, as honest Iago. It may be that while Othello made his military reputation, he neglected his social skills, so that when he falls for Desdemona, he is very inexperienced in love as opposed to sex. Certainly Othello is unsure enough to be easily influenced. He barely questions Iago's suggestion as to Desdemona's infidelity. Contrast him with Hamlet who has more questions than answers and Othello seems to succumb all too readily into believing the worst of his bride. On hearing Iago's story, Othello looks disconcerted straight away. "Why did I marry?" he asks. Desdemona, on the other hand, is also naive in that she thinks she will change her husband's mind and offers to speak for Cassio to her husband, when this action can only make things look worse for her.

Grandage and Christopher Oram's Venice is a wet, damp place with dripping water forming puddles on the old stone pavements. This contrasts with the sunny climate of Cyprus where sunlight shines through ornate, iron fretwork grills. Atmosphere is all: there is brooding music to accompany Iago's first soliloquy and the ship unfurls a magnificent sail which occupies all the space high above the stage to the sound of water and lightning and the noise of battle.

Kelly Reilly's Desdemona seems really rather shallow, child-like and in love with love but sticking with her fate; after all she has burned her boats with her father. In the early scene she hangs off Othello simpering and hugging him in public, reminding me of Gertrude and Claudius, another ill conceived Shakespearean marriage. Much later, her unlacing by Emilia (Michelle Fairley) for the bedroom takes an age with the sound effects of the wind auguring tragedy and the women discussing how powerless they are.

Loud dramatic music sees the curtains drop from the full height of the stage as silken gold drapes dwarf the tiny figure of Desdemona on a large bed. McGregor takes his performance as Iago, here pronounced Jago, up a notch in the Second Act from his matter of fact beginning, where he speaks the line "I hate the Moor" like a mantra but not implying any malevolence. Is this the mark of a true psychopath? He looks on dispassionately as Desdemona prays and starts to seem sinister as he turns on Rodrigo (Edward Bennett). When exposed he chooses silence and with his back to the audience, we are still denied what he is really thinking.

But this is largely Chiwetel Ejiofor's night as the play's central, tragic figure. He has adopted an accent, not African, not exactly Arabic but distinctly of another place, a foreigner, slowly enunciated and brilliant in its clarity. McGregor uses softly spoken Scots. Given a beard to age him above his thirty years, Chiwetel has a blend of faith in Iago and a naivety that deceive him. At the end, Othello is quiet and confused, he tells us that he loved not wisely but too well and speaks of "being wrought" alluding to how he has been manipulated and in his final speech, lighting sees his shadow playing out the scene in duplicate. Michelle Fairley does credit to one of Shakespeare's most passionate smaller roles as Emilia and Martina Laird is lively as Bianca. I liked too Tom Hiddleston's wronged Cassio.

The overriding impression I have of Grandage's Othello is that this is a marriage which was doomed from the beginning. Desdemona and Othello do not have enough in common. They are too disparate, despite the romantic accounts of his celebrity, "she loved me for the dangers that I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them", for a lasting happiness, but without Iago, it might have ended less passionately and less tragically.

This production sold out within hours of public booking opening, but each day, if you get there early enough, there are several day seats and more standing places so that real theatre enthusiasts and not merely the rich can enjoy the Donmar's interesting productions.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kelly Reilly, Chiwetel Ejiofor
With: Edward Bennett, James Laurenson, Tom Hiddleston, Alastair Sims, David Mara, Michael Hadley, Michael Jenn, Michelle Fairley, Martina Laird
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Paule Constable
Composer and Sound: Adam Cork
The Donmar thank Arielle Tepper Madover for her support of this season
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 23rd February 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th December 2007 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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