While the show has been sold out since it opened, ostensibly due to director Michael Grandage's casting of film star Ewan McGregor as Iago, don't think for a minute this is a typical star turn to sell tickets. Those lucky enough to score seats are seeing one of the greatest productions of Othello ever produced.
What makes this so is a combination of factors. To start, the multiple-award winning Grandage, currently the artistic director at the Donmar, obviously understands this play at a level that few people ever attain; otherwise, he would not have cast McGregor, who physically does not match the serpentine type usually associated with Iago.
As it turns out, this is the first of many master strokes by Grandage: In the opening lines, McGregor engulfs us with fire and focus bred of resentment, then sublimates these feelings to accomplish his objectives—appearing on the surface as one cool cat, calmly explaining his strategy and explicating the consequences that will follow.
Thus, instead of grandstanding and telegraphing his evil nature, Iago uses his face time (he has more lines than Othello) to generate the clock-like causality (Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil") that drives the story to its inexorable climax. In such powerful simplicity, we discover that all the reptilian behaviors we have come to identify with this character are indications that actually rob the play of its classical dynamics.
By excising these melodramatic trappings, room is provided for Othello to become the central tragic figure, and in Chiwetel Ejiofor's tour de force we discover the epic landscape of emotions and self-prescribed honesty that make the role of the Moor a touchstone for great actors.
From the pure joy of his love and infatuation with Desdemona through his raging jealousy exploited by Iago to his soul-wrenching despair precipitated by Emilia's revelation, Ejiofor finds the heroic through line in Othello's flawed, but monumental character.
In contrast to Ejiofor's ebony god is Kelly Reilly's alabaster goddess, Desdemona, whose overt yet guileless sexuality is the lynchpin of both Othello's early devotion and later suspicion (not to mention, in this stark black–white contrast, the root of Brabantio's and Iago's racism). Reilly's voice, body language, and characterization project equanimity of spiritual proportions, never wavering through Desdemona's darkest hours of undeserved defamation, thus providing the unsullied martyrdom by which the tragedy is amplified.
The buildup to the final sacrifice is further fueled by Tom Hiddleston's Cassio, who, like Othello, is both honorable and flawed, compounding the tragic waveform underscoring the story. Yet, as Macduff before him, Cassio pays his dues and lives to redeem the slaughter—adding a Greek element of sorts to the dynamic.
The fourth and final tragic figure in the play is Emilia, who, blinded by her love for and devotion to her husband, Iago, unknowingly facilitates his evil plan. Michelle Fairley reveals—in her received pronunciation tinged with traces of Cockney—Emilia to be of a different class, thus establishing yet another dramatic parallel. Despite her diminished social position, Fairley's Emilia is spirited, sharp-tongued, and clever, thus laying the groundwork for her powerful ascendancy in the final act, where she stands up to both Othello and Iago.
The supporting work by the rest of the ensemble exhibits the same level of excellence, which is echoed as well in the simple yet powerful lighting, sound and composition, and costume designs.
The Donmar Warehouse's Othello, directed by Michael Grandage, runs through February 23rd. 011-0870-060-6624. (N.B. There are only ten "day seats" available for each performance, on sale from the box office each day from 10.30 AM, with standing room sold on the day of the performance, once the day seats are sold out. These tickets are available in person at the Box Office, two tickets per person. To be paid by credit/debit card only.)