December 16, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Othello (Donmar) @ The Donmar Warehouse
Much has been made in the press of Michael Grandage’s new production of Othello for the Donmar, mostly to do with the selling-on price of tickets. Reportedly, tickets have been changing hands for £1200, making this officially the hottest ticket in London. The question is, is it really worth it?
Well, of course it’s not, no play is worth upwards of £1000, however good. Even for the more modest £15-£20 that most of us paid, however, it’s not the all-encompassing success that would justify the hype. Grandage’s production is a solid and interesting telling of the play that does its job, but won’t be entering the history books.
The highlight of this production was undoubtedly Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Adopting a flawless Moorish accent, Ejiofor brings tremendous humanity to the role, for the most part avoiding the stock mannerisms and theatrics that sometimes dog the part. In the earliest scenes he was full of life and humour, exuding a likeability that endeared the audience, as well as the Venetian nobility, to his cause. The changes in him throughout the play were subtle, particularly during the crucial temptation scene as he initially paid only scant attention to Iago yet gradually came to a place of extreme violence. Ejiofor additionally rendered Othello an imposing character through an exceptionally strong presence that hinted at the horrors in store for anyone who crossed him. One never doubted his ability to carry out the threats promised should Iago not prove his love a whore.
It was a shame, then, that the other two lead performances were so weak. Ewan McGregor, the production’s big draw, made for an efficient but entirely dull Iago- in fact, rarely have I ever considered Iago such an unimportant character in the play. His coolness certainly made Othello’s trust in him understandable, but even in his soliloquies he seemed only marginally interested in his own scheming. Without personality, McGregor’s performance turned Iago dangerously into a plot device, a means to bring the action forward to its inevitable conclusion. Many reviewers have complained that he’s not evil enough- I would complain that he was just nothing. But at least he was more watchable than Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona. Pathetic and whiny, she may have looked the part but her delivery of the lines was stilted and affected. This combined with a slightly spoiled petulance to create a Desdemona who wasn’t particularly interesting or sympathetic, and like Iago she became a device for Othello’s downfall.
Other aspects of the production were far more rewarding. A fantastic lighting design by Paule Constable made great use of the Donmar space, with a huge sail extending across the ceiling to create an intimate and more brightly lit Cyprus, and once the sail was retracted the relative dimness of the auditorium made for a fitting atmosphere as the play drew towards its conclusion. The opening image too, of light reflecting from the gutter that ran across the stage to create ripples of light on the bare brick wall, was a beautiful one. The sound design was also excellently executed, particularly for the willow song. Desdemona began singing (here she was very good, I should admit) against a background of wind and rain noise with a low note providing an ominous backing. Then, a melody drifted out of nowhere, soft and barely noticeable but just clear enough to support the singing and make the scene very moving, one of the best moments of the production.
The always-reliable Tom Hiddleston was a top-draw Cassio, particularly enjoying himself during the drinking scenes and fawning all over Desdemona. Almost schoolboyish in his pleasure at being asked to read out the proclamation of victory and the first to cheer at good news, his youthful enthusiasm made his final disappointed words to Othello all the more affecting, the play showing his growth into sober manhood as well as Othello’s decline. James Laurenson and Edward Bennett provided good support as Brabantio and Roderigo respectively. Interestingly, having a less likeable Desdemona made Brabantio a far more sympathetic character by comparison, he disowning his daughter for her wilful disobedience. Laurenson’s grave and well-judged performance refused to turn Brabantio into a blustering fool, instead giving us a gentleman roused by an unexpected horror who ultimately resigned himself to it. Roderigo was responsible for many of the production’s comic touches, but Bennett also brought out the character’s positive attributes, particularly as he finally asserted himself against Iago, the character finding a strength which previously he seemed to have lacked.
The final scene was effective, Othello straddling Desdemona’s body as he strangled her with his bare hands on the floor, before gently finishing the job after she already lay still. Ejiofor died with style, a knife to his neck as he fell onto the huge bed. This was the Moor’s play far above anyone else’s, and Ejiofor’s performance will be remembered if there is any justice. A little less hype, and some stronger performances in the other lead roles, would have turned a good production into a great one, but with the Donmar fully sold out for the remainder of the run I don’t think anyone at the theatre will be complaining.