Othello by William Shakespeare

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BBC Radio 3, 4 May 2008

Michael Grandage’s Othello, first produced at London’s Donmar Warehouse, portrayed a Venetian world where racism was rife and where the eponymous hero represented a threat to social stability. It was also a complacent world, ripe for exploitation by Machiavellian schemers such as Iago (Ewan McGregor); the kind of person who was bound to succeed, simply because he understood how people thought and how easily they could be manipulated. This Venice was also a world where no one trusted anyone else, where independent thought was discouraged and friendship no longer existed. All the scenes of so-called good fellowship involving Iago, Cassio (Tom Huddleston) and Roderigo (Edward Bennett) were shot through with malice; one word spoken out of place could transform the scene from one of peace into violence.

In this revival Othello (Chivetel Ejofor) was not the noble general but rather someone trying to feel his way in an inhospitable society. He was clearly not comfortable delivering the long, flowery soliloquies – perhaps because he realized that everyone was watching and listening to him in the hope he would make a mistake. The real source of energy was Iago, who seemed so totally in control of the situation that no one had the power to resist him. Yet there remained the sense that, despite his cleverness, he was indulging in trickery for its own sake, simply to show off. He remained an unsavoury character while at the same time seeming extremely insecure.

I did not see the original stage production; but from the evidence of what I heard, this revival stripped away a lot of the clichés associated with Shakespeare’s play and presented it in a new and threatening light. No one seemed safe in a dog-eat-dog world discouraging individual thought, where outsiders were regarded as potential threats to the status quo. Michael Grandage should be congratulated on a superb evening’s listening.