The anticipation was high and the ticket sales equally so for Michael Grandage’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello, for which the Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director has lined up a high calibre cast centring on the duo of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role and Ewan McGregor as his scheming ensign who plots to bring him down. Caroline Bishop went to see them in action at the first night…
The beauty of Iago, the manipulative, conscience-free ensign, is that none of the other characters even guess that he might be less honest than the image he presents. And in Ewan McGregor, this is believable – his open, charismatic face and helpful manner give no suggestion of the dishonesty that lies beneath, which is only revealed in his asides to the audience, accompanied by a glint in his eye and a satisfied smile. In this way, he is able to dish out advice to Othello, his Lieutenant Cassio and the lovelorn Roderigo with each of them trusting his motives, so leading them unknowingly, even easily, to play an unwitting role in his tragic plot. Such is the extent of his malevolence and lack of conscience that just when you think he will go no further, he does.
Ejiofor’s Othello, the high ranking soldier whom Iago serves, is a strong, dignified and honest man, who makes Iago work hard to fulfil his plot. He is not one to be easily swayed by tales of his wife Desdemona’s alleged affair with Cassio, and rages against Iago until the latter placates him with ‘proof’. It is testimony to Iago’s unrelenting manipulation and the trust Othello places in him, that he manages to orchestrate Othello’s descent into jealousy, leading to the tragic final scene. Once set on that path, Othello cannot be swayed.
Equally, Tom Hiddleston’s confident, successful Cassio spirals into an anxious, troubled, almost pitiful figure, who is blind to Iago’s deceit. The simpering Roderigo (Edward Bennett) is too obsessed with Desdemona to notice the wider consequences of Iago’s scheming, until the plot ultimately turns on him. Only Iago’s wife Emilia (Michelle Fairley), knows something of her husband’s true nature and is well aware of the deception that can simmer in anyone.
As for Desdemona, Kelly Reilly plays her as a confident, modern woman who knows her own mind and is a strong enough match for her husband Othello, until he doubts her and that strength and confidence ebbs away. In a scene that is moving and shiveringly ominous, helped by Adam Cork’s sound and music, she prepares herself for bed, suggesting in her demeanour that she knows something of the fate that will befall her.
When the extent of his manipulation is revealed – in a heartbreaking display by Fairley’s Emilia – it is only left to wonder what melting pot of resentment, hatred and plain cold-heartedness led Iago to destroy those around him.