Michael Grandage’s much-anticipated (and long sold-out) production of Othello - starring Ewan McGregor as Iago, Kelly Reilly as Desdemona and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role (See Today’s 1st Night Photos) - opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night (4 December, previews from 30 November) with tickets going for as high as £2000 on eBay.
The production of the tragedy, the first Shakespeare that Grandage has directed at the Donmar, caps off his first five years as artistic director of the small (at 250 seats) but highly influential Covent Garden theatre. During his tenure to date, Grandage has personally directed ten award-winning productions, including Caligula, Henry IV, Grand Hotel, The Wild Duck and the premiere of Frost/Nixon, which transferred to the West End and Broadway.
He’s previously directed Ejiofor in The Vortex and Reilly in After Miss Julie at the Donmar and directed McGregor when he made his Whatsonstage.com Award-winning musical stage debut in the Donmar’s West End revival of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre.
In addition to the three leads, the Othello company features Tom Hiddleston as Cassio, Michelle Fairley as Emilia and Edward Bennett as Roderigo, and also includes Michael Hadley, Michael Jenn, Martina Laird, David Mara, Alastair Sims and James Laurenson. The production is designed by Christopher Oram, with lighting by Paule Constable and music and sound by Adam Cork.
With a solid four stars from most of the first night critics, only the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer left last night’s opening wholly dissatisfied, labelling the production “a glum evening”. All eyes were trained particularly beadily on the show’s biggest star attraction, Ewan McGregor, who many critics found somewhat wanting and “insufficiently complex”, his natural charm working against him in the role of villain Iago. There was admiration for Kelly Reilly’s “captivating” Desdemona and other supporting parts, though the highest praise was reserved for Chiwetel Ejiofor and his “beautifully spoken” and “revelatory” title role performance.
Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “As the manipulator of much of the action, much of the attention naturally focuses on Iago, particularly as being played here by Ewan McGregor, in his Shakespearean debut … He’s a plain-speaking Iago. And while he’s well able to mask the character’s machinations, what we don’t get is any justification for his actions … McGregor’s rather flat delivery leaves his Iago totally inscrutable. Not so Kelly Reilly’s captivating Desdemona. Here’s a picture of a young woman totally in love with her man and genuinely bemused as he turns against her. She’s no wide-eyed innocent, but rather a woman totally at ease with her sexuality, flirting openly with Tom Hiddleston’s impressive Cassio – and thereby making Iago’s accusations all too believable. There’s a strong performance too from Michelle Fairley as Emilia … However, all the actors are upstaged by the superb Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello … Ejiofor eschews the trend to portray Othello as some latent psychopath. His verse-speaking is first-rate, his dignified, softly-spoken Moor always compelling. This is an excellent production of Othello. It’s a hot ticket all right, and maybe unconscionably dear, but it will be worth it if you can get one.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “To watch McGregor simply standing at the back and directing his laser eyes at Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello, Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona or Tom Hiddleston’s Cassio is to believe that they are in the clutches of an authentic monster. And last night all three of his victims proved as adroit with Shakespeare’s language and emotions as one had expected, given that Michael Grandage was directing, and doing so with his usual flair, care and respect for the text … Grandage’s handling of the relationship between that wife and her supposed lover is particularly effective. You never doubt that Reilly’s Desdemona is innocent, but she’s a touchy-feely girl who sinuously yet unselfconsciously exudes sexuality. And Hiddleston’s Cassio is equally demonstrative, an outgoing, emotionally generous young man for whom it is natural to kiss, hug and stroke, as he strokes Reilly’s cheeks … There are times when McGregor’s diction is fine and they are often the right ones … He’s vigorous, hard, mean and he does hate, really hate. Hate enough to give us Shakespeare’s play as it poignantly, painfully should be.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Admittedly, I've never quite been able to understand all the fuss about McGregor. He had an edge about him in such early pictures as Trainspotting and Shallow Grave but since then a terrible blandness has been born … I therefore approached his Iago with pretty low expectations, only to find that I had nevertheless pitched them too high. In a rare botched shot from director Michael Grandage, McGregor is by far the weakest link in a disappointing production … Kelly Reilly, an actress I have greatly admired, is an almost equally disastrous Desdemona. This is a character who ought to be played as a sweet, warm-hearted innocent. Reilly however … seems downright tarty as she shows off her heaving décolletage and flirts outrageously with Cassio. Only in the last act does she become briefly poignant. Before that, you can readily understand why Othello comes to believe she is a whore. The one bright spot is Chiwetel Ejiofor's beautifully spoken, massively dignified Othello, though even he short-changes the audience when it comes to depicting the humiliating agonies of sexual jealousy. It's a glum evening, and I shouldn't fret if you have failed to secure tickets.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Ejiofor also puts himself into the front rank of modern Othellos. Agate said the three essential qualities for any Othello were nobility, temperament and the capacity to be pole-axed; and Ejiofor has them all … Ejiofor's youth is at odds with the text's insistence on Othello's seniority. Otherwise this is a performance that, in its descent from majestic dignity to deluded rage, suggests a great and noble building being destroyed by the wrecker's ball. The ball in question, of course, is Iago, of whom Ewan McGregor gives a decent, robust, if insufficiently complex, account. McGregor's great asset, paradoxically, is charm. But I never felt the actor gave us privileged access to what Hazlitt called the man's ‘diseased intellectual activity’. In place of Auden's practical joker or the impotent obsessive imagined by many actors, we get simply an enigmatic destroyer … But the real virtue of Grandage's production lies less in devastating insights than in its ability to reveal the play's tragic lineaments: as the spotlight fades on the intertwined bodies of Othello and Desdemona, you feel that something of great potential beauty has been destroyed by the world's ugliness.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Chiwetel Ejiofor … offers a riveting, psychological diagnosis of Othello as a black African outsider in a white world, whose sexual and social insecurities make him masochistically susceptible to the sadistic manipulations of Ewan McGregor's Mr Monochrome - an Iago with a personality by-pass, but dangerous nonetheless … Ejiofor's bearded, African-sounding, very Christian Moor, whose charismatic eyes dominate the stage, never basks in the military self-importance of conventional Othellos … McGregor's Iago performs a curiously insipid role in this S&M dance of death. With the air of an aloof butler planning steps to his master's downfall, he neither convinces as brilliant deceiver nor as a depraved manipulator … Grandage fields an uncharacteristically bland, under-developed production, which designer Christopher Oram locates first in a Venice notable for church bells, a black/gold backcloth and a watery gutter, then in a murky Cyprus of cicadas and thunder, set against a crumbling wall. Light shines through a single, grille door. There is no acute atmospheric definition, no strong sense of the difference between Venice and Cyprus … It is Ejiofor who makes this such an illuminating and revelatory Othello.”
- by Tom Atkins & Terri Paddock