Othello – January 2008


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st Janaury 2008

The advantage of the Donmar is that, even at the back of the stalls, we were only four rows away from the action. I do love this theatre.

This production was pretty good too. I haven’t seen Shakespeare done in this more than intimate space before, and it worked pretty well. The down side is that there’s no room to put extra characters on stage to pad out the larger scenes, so here the Duke is in conference with only one other member of Venice’s governing body, a trifle sparse for realism. But it does trim everything down to the essentials, and some aspects of these plays come out all the clearer for that.

Here the staging was minimalist, as you might expect. A grating ran along the floor in front of the back wall, and allowed for some dripping water. There were just a few hints of a canal-based society, in the rings attached to the back wall, for example. There was a lovely effect when some golden curtains dropped down from above to create the bedroom scene – a beautiful mist of golden rain. There were also some canopies used earlier in the play, but as we were in the back row, I didn’t get a very good view of these.

I also didn’t get a good view of James Laurenson as Brabantio, as he was located above us on the balcony for the opening scene. This wasn’t a problem, as most of the dialogue came across perfectly well, and Brabantio was soon downstairs, determined to get his revenge for his lost daughter. It was an OK performance, but again I found I lost a lot of his dialogue during the play. Roderigo was good, a gullible nobleman, but not quite as stupid as some I’ve seen.

Othello’s speech to the court was interesting. I got the distinct impression he’s a real storyteller, embellishing real incidents to get the most drama out of them – a drama queen but with some basis in truth. He also seems to believe the stories he tells, and this suggested to me his readiness to believe other people’s stories. Chiwetel Ejiofor paced his performance very well. At first he just didn’t seem to get what Iago was trying to tell him, showing he was free from any suspicions of Desdemona, then as he grasped what was being said, he was all too ready to embellish it himself. This man has never learned to temper his emotions with thought, unlike Iago, who has more thought than emotion in this production. At times I felt that Othello was falling into the traps as fast as Iago could set them, and some indication of Iago reacting to his good fortune would have been welcome. However.

Back to the earlier scenes. I was aware of Desdemona’s willingness to deceive her father – despite her demureness, there’s a real spirit there, and perhaps less pure innocence than she would have us believe. I did think her love for Othello was pure, but she’s not as above board as is often made out. After all, she prevaricates about the handkerchief instead of coming clean, so she’s certainly capable of lying. I found her less convincing towards the end, although these are difficult scenes for any actress.

The killing worked well, with Othello strangling her on the floor, then putting her on the bed. As we were in the back row, we could easily hear the “noises off” – they were right behind us – including Amelia’s calls which interrupt Othello in the act. This final scene has a strange rhythm. There are lots of long speeches from Othello, while others stand around, amazed, “and know not what to say” (Hermia, Dream), which can seem a little odd. Likewise, Amelia, determined to dish the dirt on her husband, now she knows just what he’s been up to, spends most of her time telling us she’s going to tell all, before getting round to actually doing it. I did feel this time that it was touch and go as to whether the listeners would believe her or her husband, but once he’d stabbed her, it was obvious to everyone who was telling the truth. This interpretation made a lot of sense to me.

So, overall I enjoyed the performance, even though I found myself nodding off a little at the start of the second half (more tired than I realised, and not enough happening on stage). My main concern was the weakness of Iago. He told us that he hated Othello and why, then he did everything he could to bring about his downfall, so I have to believe he meant it, yet I couldn’t have told from his body language or delivery of the lines that he was remotely bothered about the man. I don’t need actors to writhe around in fits of agony, nor go bouncing off walls, but I do think such apparent passion for revenge would give us some tell-tale signs, especially during the soliloquies. There are people who bottle up their emotions, true, but they’re a lot less interesting to see performed on stage than in other media – we’re there, for God’s sake, so give us something to work with! Anyway, the lines were spoken well, and I understood from those what was going on inside this Iago, so that will have to do.

Almost forgot – the play started very abruptly, as is appropriate, without the usual dimming of the lights. Just Iago and Roderigo rushing on, yelling out to Brabantio. Nice touch, and it meant we were all awake for the opening scene.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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