Othello @ Donmar Warehouse, London

cast list
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Ewan McGregor
Edward Bennett
Kelly Reilly
Tom Hiddleston
Michael Hadley
Michelle Fairley
Martina Laird
Michael Jenn
David Mara
James Laurenson
Alastair Sim

directed by
Michael Grandage
The hype has been unavoidable. In fact I believe it is now illegal to write about this show without using the words hot and ticket in close conjunction, quickly followed with a reference to the implausibly large sums that said tickets are said to be going for on eBay.

So there, Ive done it, and now I can move on to the production itself. All this fuss and press interest is, of course, down to the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role, and more significantly, to the fact that Ewan McGregor is playing Iago.

McGregor has, perhaps inevitably, been subject to the closest critical scrutiny; and while his is a rather subdued performance, I do wonder if he was suffering from press night nerves as he is far more charismatic in the role than many of the reviews made out. His Iago remains a buttoned-up character, and whatever is fuelling his scheming and villainy is never really made clear. But he acquits himself well in what is, after all, his Shakespearean stage debut. Its a competent effort, solid. But its not a star turn, even if you feel he may ease into the role and grow in confidence once the critical headlamps have dipped.

Chiwetel Ejiofors performance is another matter. He is enthralling as Othello, commanding and convincing and ultimately devastating. He relishes the verse, embraces it, his voice gentle yet still powerful. You sit rapt, knowing the outcome, yet quietly pleading for it not to be so, for him to listen to reason, to believe Desdemonas assertions of innocence. Ejiofors performance is one of subtlety and strength, and in emotional terms, one incredibly well pitched. He resists the urge to grandstand and is all the stronger for it. He seems totally at home in the role in a way McGregor never quite manages.

As Desdemona, Kelly Reilly has also rather divided the critics. Initially she comes across as girlish and a little flighty – and there is little overt chemistry between her and Ejiofor. Yet the scene where Michelle Fairleys Emilia slowly helps her undress for bed is deeply moving; and when she is left standing barefoot in her loose nightgown, stripped of her corsets and stockings, she exudes vulnerability.

There are further strong performances among the supporting cast, from Fairley and also from Tom Hiddleston, as an endearingly blokey Cassio.

Directed by Michael Grandage (who also directed McGregors last stage venture, Guys And Dolls), the production is very atmospheric. Done in traditional dress, on a minimally furnished set, events play out against a wall of exposed brick. Grandage’s regular collaborator Paul Constable uses evocative lighting to give shape to each scene, filling the space with mist and shadows. And, though clocking in at well over three hours, the pacing is taut throughout, the production has real momentum.

It is also, as has been widely reported, now sold out. But day tickets are still available and this show is definitely worth queuing in the cold for. As for eBay, well, thats up to you.

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