“Is that an iamb I see before me?” That’s not exactly the question one might expect young thrusting actors to be volleying back and forth, in between busy, lucrative jobs in movies that, let’s face it, generally tend not to be too demanding these days when it comes to language. But is it really that much of a surprise to find an interest in Shakespeare extending well beyond the senior ranks of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Judi Dench, formidable though they may be?
Nowadays you’re as apt to find a hot Hollywood-comer wrapping his or her mouth round an iambic pentameter as they are signing on for movie franchises promising them three or four goes at the same role. And when it comes to franchises, surely it’s not too crude to point out that Shakespeare got there first – not just with the Henry history plays with all those sequels, but via an entire canon promising diversity and variety 37 times over. Those are better odds than even the most in-demand young actors are likely to find on screen.
Consider the evidence: surely the hottest ticket of a London season that has already seen the West End transfer of Stewart’s “Macbeth of a lifetime” and McKellen’s King Lear (and also includes the Simon Russell Beale/Zoe Wanamaker Much Ado About Nothing at the National) is the Donmar Warehouse’s winter offering. It’s seasonal choice is not a musical, as has often been the case, but the first Shakespeare of Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage’s regime: Othello, starring a line-up that the movies (not to mention Broadway) would die for in Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kelly Reilly, and, making his professional Shakespearean debut as Iago, Ewan McGregor.
Come again? Everyone’s favourite Scotsman and all-around good guy playing a demanding part that has in fact been acted within recent and very vivid memory by Russell Beale, McKellen and Antony Sher in highly praised performances? “Just the terror of it is huge,” McGregor told Michael Parkinson in a TV interview aired prior to Othello previews at the Donmar, the fear factor being presumably where the thrill also lies. “It’s such a large part and it’s such a massive play, but an amazing play – quite brilliant,” he went on to enthuse. “At the end, (Iago) just says, ‘You know what you know’, and I’m not going to say anymore."
Nor, indeed, has this cast said much more to the press, preferring to keep their heads down and get on with a production that certainly promises to sell the sizzle. Ejiofor, on view of late at multiplexes in the Ridley Scott film American Gangster (the latest in a movie CV which includes Talk to Me, Red Dust, Inside Man, Kinky Boots, Love Actually and Dirty Pretty Things) needs scant introduction to Shakespeare (at age 17, he was playing the title roles in both Othello and Julius Caesar at the National Youth Theatre) or, for that matter, the classics. His stage CV is packed with a National Theatre Romeo in 2000 (described in the Daily Mail by Michael Coveney as “the freshest, sexiest, best spoken and most thoroughly enjoyable Romeo I’ve seen in years”), as well as Trigorin early in 2007 in the Royal Court’s shimmering production of The Seagull. He followed Dirty Pretty Things and Love Actually with playing Shakespeare on film, as Duke Orsino in the Tim Supple-directed 2003 TV movie version of Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
It’s simply mouth-watering to imagine the sparks that will be struck between the two men themselves and their interplay separately and together with Donmar alumna, Reilly. Last seen at that Covent Garden address giving an Olivier-nominated performance in After Miss Julie, Reilly by rights ought to be a Desdemona well worth reckoning with if she can bring to that tricky role the same mixture of sexuality and pathos that marked out her remarkable TV performance this past autumn in the Stephen Poliakoff film, Joe’s Palace, for the BBC. In 2005 she won the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress in an Independent Film award for her performance in Mrs Henderson Presents.
It’s entirely possible, too, that breadth of work on film – and few have as varied a CV as McGregor – can feed a production on stage, or so Grandage feels about this particular Othello and its biggest name draw. “Othello,” its director told me before rehearsals began, “is one of the smallest cast Shakespeares – very, very intimate – and it requires many of the characters to have an inner life that is communicated to the audience. So I wanted an actor who understood what an inner life in a small studio means.”
At which point, cue McGregor. Not only had this actor and director worked together on the smash Whatsonstage.com Award-winning West End revival of Guys and Dolls but, says Grandage, “Ewan is just a genuinely open-faced individual who has very few barriers.” That quality, in turn, gives McGregor ready access to the charm and likeability without which the much-vaunted “motiveless malignancy” of Iago falls away.
For a while, of course, McGregor was on board with his friend and contemporary Jude Law in a production company, Natural Nylon, that no longer exists, though not before it fired up rumours of a Three Sisters that didn’t happen. But McGregor need look no further than two-time Oscar nominee Law for proof of a terrifically contemporary film actor whose stage work has tended entirely of late toward the classics. You might think, that one of the stars of Closer on screen would be acting the likes of Patrick Marber on stage.
Instead, Law has made good on early stage work in Euripides (Ion), Cocteau (Les Parents Terribles) and Arthur Miller (a Leeds Death of a Salesman alongside none other than James Purefoy) and by reaching further back to the Jacobeans – 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – at the Young Vic. And, in 2009, we can look forward to seeing Law in the title role in a Donmar-produced Hamlet at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
“Those who know me well know that this is what I’ve always been about and this is what I will continue to be about,” Law told me at the time of Doctor Faustus, as regards his abiding interest in the theatre and the classics. Is that because films simply don’t allow actors to grab at language? Or perhaps it’s that one has only to speak of Branagh to see the extent to which Shakespeare makes good career sense. Law’s Hamlet director (who also directed his West End leading man-to-be in the film remake of Sleuth) has himself enjoyed no finer screen moment than starring in his own film version of Henry V nearly 20 years ago. And that movie would never have happened had Branagh not appeared for Adrian Noble in a blistering Royal Shakespeare Company production of the same play, which marked – wait for it – the young RADA graduate’s professional Shakespearean debut. Of course, young Brits aren’t unique in their embrace of the Bardic canon, spoiling though the press already seem to be to pit Law’s Hamlet against David Tennant’s RSC go-round in the same play that will have come and gone before the Law one even starts. Jake Gyllenhaal was close to playing Romeo in London for director Laurence Boswell before real film stardom beckoned. Across the pond, keen New York playgoers will have had the chance to compare Central Park Twelfth Nights starring Michelle Pfeiffer (in 1989) and Julia Stiles (in 2002) – the latter when Stiles, then 21, was still at university – while Ethan Hawke made a decidedly raw, hyper Hotspur in Henry IV at the Lincoln Center in 2003. I for one can't speak personally of Keanu Reeves’ Hamlet, which the actor limited to audiences in his native Canada in 1995, but with all due respect to the trio of heavies now tackling Othello nightly, isn’t it about time that Reeve’s Speed co-star Sandra Bullock gave us her Gertrude? Or perhaps, come to think of it, that way madness lies.
Othello opens on 4 December 2007 (previews from 30 November) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 23 February 2008. Advance tickets are sold out, but ten day seats are available for each performance, and are available from 10.30am in person at the box office. Standing spaces are available once these have sold out.
Matt Wolf is London theatre critic for the International Herald Tribune and writes on the business of theatre for Bloomberg News. A longer version of this article appears in the December / January issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which will be out this Friday in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!