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Thursday 6th December 2007
Theatre Review | OTHELLO | Donmar Warehouse

Production: Othello
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Producer: Donmar Warehouse
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Address: 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London WC2H 9LX
Box Office: +44 (0)870 060 6624
Dates: 30 November 2007 - 23 February 2008
Opened: 4 December 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Norman Tozer

Shakespeare has written a fast-moving drama about the interactions of belief and honesty, sexual faithfulness and masculine pride, and the use of power in family and society. Michael Grandage has directed it so that it comes across with intelligence and clarity. There is no phoney concept, you do not have to ferret out that this story reflects the racial and military tensions in southern Indonesia under Dutch rule a century ago, for instance. By leaving the actors to act, the achievement of Grandage's handling is that he appears not to have taken a line. The characters tell a story of the human condition. That's refreshing today for the production of a classic – and it's a pretty good night for acting. Whether it satisfies you depends entirely on the preconceptions you have. I have tried to set mine aside.

Entering the auditorium you see that the playing area is paved. There is a drain running along the rear and it is backed by a watery image suggesting foliage and bricks. The sounds are of water and bells and the set easily conjures the atmosphere of Venice. Christopher Oram (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Adam Cork (composer and sound designer) have seamlessly used their abilities to provide a strong sense of time and place for this presentation, suggesting locations without being too literal. Water and darkness characterise the first action, sunshine and heat the middle and it descends to darkness towards the end.

From the start we are in the company of cleanly defined, real people: the angry but ordinary-seeming Iago (Ewan McGregor) always presents reasonable arguments for his requests – he's just one of the boys (and nowadays many would find his ambitious behaviour totally acceptable). Rodrigo (Edward Bennett), questioning him, is recognisable as another man-about-ambition but weaker – transparent for anyone to play on his puppy lust and greed. James Laurenson makes Desdemona's Dad, Brabantio, the usual blustering figure until he arrives at the Duke's. When having to acknowledge that his daughter is Othello's wife, Laurenson's combination of dignity and hurt is genuinely moving. Cassio (Tom Hiddleston) emerges more clearly too than in many productions; he is a young, appealing figure, making it easy to understand his energetic anxiety over losing his job as Lieutenant to the Commander, Othello. It is awful to see how this disappointment blinds him to Iago's stratagems and puzzling to realise the double values he displays in his treatment of Bianca.

The women emerge freshly, too. Kelly Reilly plays Desdemona as a young woman, not a growing girl, as she is sometimes played. She is fair and attractive – and self-confident, even assertive (she plays "I do perceive here a divided duty…" with the conviction of a Cordelia). You can easily see why Othello and the rest of the males want her or fall under her spell. It is only at the end when she realises that her youthful confidence has blinded her, trapped her, that you see her girl's lack of experience. This a performance not yet fully expressed. It will be a stunner when it develops.

Michelle Fairley's Emilia stuns in another way. Either the edition of the text or some judicious cutting reduces some of her earlier scenes, but when she gets going she is wondrously strong. This Emilia is not the bawdy nurse-figure of a Romeo and Juliet, nor the strangely compliant infiltrator for Iago seen in other productions. This is a worldly woman of some dignity. In the Willow scene she is almost a feminist as she summarises her critique on husbands:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

At Desdemona's murder Fairley is magnificently dangerous. The power of the acting reveals the character's intensity, keeping Othello and all around at bay.

And so to Iago and Othello. As I have said, Ewan McGregor makes Iago a man of petty ambition whose plausibility, guile and rare tantrums are recognisably so current as to be unremarkable. The interpretive question, as always, is why does Othello fall for it? I can't pretend that Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance yet convinces me at all points but I believe I can detect the way he's going; later in the run he should get there.

His Othello is a military man, experienced and effective in command. You see this in the reactions of those around him. It is demonstrated in the Venetians' need for his skills to resist the Turks in Cyprus. He expects the same honesty from those around him as he gives them. Finding love late in life (he's in his mid-thirties) he realises how precious it is and fears to lose it. His strengths and weaknesses are an open book for someone like Iago; he has no real cynicism to protect him.

Ejiofor hints at something else, as well: a mid-Eastern pride in reputation and masculinity that does not need stating because it is in the blood (if I'm right, he needs to clarify this). The approach would justify the way his Othello reacts to what he believes is mounting evidence of his wife's infidelity. This Othello internalises his fears and growing need for action. He quietly commands his wife's obedience as he arranges her murder. When it comes, there is no pity, no terror, no immediately explosive relief. Mistakenly, Ejiofor opens the scene too slowly; such a pace does not allow tension to build and he risks losing it all. But as the action progresses, and precariously late after the murder, his Othello realises his own emotion; importantly, we then can release our own.

This is such a good production that I regret there are some strange awkwardnesses that do not help performers. The opening scene, which needs to engage the audience immediately, is staged too far forward for all the house to see. Equally, Brabantio's scene at his house window would be invisible for many downstairs. The lighting, whilst good atmospherically and scenically, often leaves actors in the dark. Othello totally disappears in the gloom whilst he is supposed to be observing the Handkerchief scene. And he is also left unlit for several speeches in the latter part of the play. I began, uncharitably, to think someone had so lost confidence in Ejiofor's visual presence to persuade, that like the stereotype turn upstage to cover an actor's lack of conviction, so too Othello is left speaking in the dark. Finally, even in the middle of brightly lit action, the overhead light leaves too many heads clearly illuminated but faces in gloom.

All considered, this is a finely directed Othello and a cast without weakness. The coming weeks will reveal whether it will become a great production.

Norman Tozer © 2007

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