Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 4 December, 2007

Not only is this production entirely sold out apart from day seats, but tickets for it on eBay are currently fetching up to £500 a pair, around ten times face value. Frankly, it's not worth shelling out that much just to see Ewan McGregor onstage, no matter how much you like him. His performance as Iago is pretty much what you would imagine Ewan McGregor playing Iago to be like. He successfully locates the villainy (or most of it) in this most villainous of Shakespeare's characters, and is solid in his characterisation without going either for infernal revelling or sinister underplaying. He plays the role in his own accent, which is a good thing, and in his own speech patterns, which is less so since his is one of the least verse-adept voices I have heard in Shakespeare for some time.

Contrariwise, Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role speaks with enormous resonance and sensitivity, or would do if he were not deploying the stereotypical Othello orotund-booming-and-slightly-foreign voice, as if the Moor might hail from Lagos or Llanelli but is definitely not using the same accent as the Venetians who otherwise people the play. (But neither is McGregor, and he's meant to be one of them.) Ejiofor is at his best on stage or screen when portraying an eerie calm barely holding in check immense subterranean forces. Consequently he is most impressive here in the early stages of the great temptation scene with Iago, when Othello's words protest his beloved Desdemona's innocence of any adultery but the malignant seed of jealousy is visibly taking root behind his eyes; later, too, when he is (falsely) convinced of her infidelity but trying to behave formally in public – instead of speaking the phrase as an ejaculation, he tells Lodovico, "You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus, goats and monkeys", as if he were enumerating the island's rutting inhabitants. Even in the climactic bedchamber scene in which he throttles Desdemona, his almost ceremonial resolve belies the turmoil of passions beneath. But for most of the play, Ejiofor's is a puzzlingly old-fashioned performance.

Indeed, this is true of much of Michael Grandage's production, right from the initial odd note of doublets and hose in the Donmar. Adam Cork's soundscapes during scenes are wonderfully subtle, but blare up into undistinguished chording for scene changes or the interval. Kelly Reilly seems at first to be playing Desdemona as a schoolgirl who weds Othello in a youthful enthusiasm then finds herself bewildered as his insecurities break upon her like a stormy ocean; as the evening progresses, however, it seems more likely that she is either unwilling or unable to break out of a narrow vocal range. Old hand James Laurenson shows up the younger players' uncertainties in the minor roles of Brabantio and Gratiano. And with no-one else transcending the most conventional of expectations, McGregor's almost contemporary-naturalistic-prose performance is all the more at odds. He has to rely on his charisma, where he really ought to let Shakespeare take at least some of the strain.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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