No more Mr Nice Guy: Ewan McGregor stars as the scheming villain in a revival of 'Othello'

Paul Taylor discovers why this usually charming actor was cast in the role

There's more than a smack of the sordid bullfight about Othello. That parallel is subject, though, to several twists. It's a human being of a different race, not an animal, whom the scheming Iago reduces to a tortured, jealous wreck in the throes of a frothing fit at his feet. It's no red rag, but an emotionally charged handkerchief that the matador waves goadingly at his prey. Dragged into the ring, the innocent wives of both antagonists are killed during the course of the contest. And, also against the rules, the matador is, in the end, upstaged by the victim who is felled by his own hand.

Othello is arguably the most intense and immediate of Shakespeare's mature tragedies. Yet productions that release the play's full potential are rare. The problems that it poses for a director are part and parcel of its tremendous yet tricky brilliance. On the one hand, it would be a sentimental reading of the play that accepted Othello at his own valuation; on the other (which, for a while, was the modern orthodoxy) it is a cynical, reductive interpretation of the play that takes a steadfastly censorious view of his self-protective magniloquence. Avoiding both of these distortions and achieving a balanced view of the hero is the moral challenge to our perception that lies at the heart of the play. Few productions successfully rise to it.

Without doubt a key factor in this production selling out so quickly with tickets changing hands for up to 1,200 is the casting of Ewan McGregor.

It's sometimes argued that the play should be called "Iago", for it is Othello's right-hand man who drives the hero towards his doom. Iago is a warped, surrogate dramatist and his genre is revenge pornography (his account of Cassio's alleged horny dream about Desdemona brilliantly presses every button of perverted sexual arousal). Initially incited to vengeance when he is passed over for promotion in favour of a Sandhurst type, this chippy army man is revealed in soliloquy to be a psychopath who has to invent absurd reasons for his nihilistic hatred of the Moor.

But though Iago is a playwright who takes the exploitation of living creatures to a chilling extreme, it's sometimes forgotten just how improvisatory and hand-to-mouth are his methods. And in emphasising his diabolical ingenuity and recklessness, productions often overlook the fact that, for his plot to work at all, the character (and the actor playing him) must plausibly show why he has achieved his ironic reputation for honesty.

Michael Grandage, whose Donmar revival of the tragedy begins previewing tonight, is alert to the problems which are possibilities in disguise. Well aware of the performance history of Othello (in his earlier career as an actor, he played the idiotic Roderigo in the celebrated RSC production starring Willard White and Ian McKellen), he talks of the cultural shifts that have seen alternations in which of the two main male parts was regarded as the better role.

In the days when it was considered acceptable for white actors to play the Moor, leading thespians such as Edmund Kean played both roles during their career, as did Laurence Olivier, who portrayed Iago to Ralph Richardson's Othello at the Old Vic in 1938 and then blacked up as an ostentatiously African Moor to Frank Finlay's Iago in the 1964 National Theatre production.

But Grandage has been intent in rehearsal on shedding the weight of theatrical tradition. "Everything is on a knife-edge in this play, so you've got to get across the sense that nobody knows what is going to happen next." Iago takes enormous risks in the tissue of lies he concocts. No other Shakespearean tragedy could be averted so easily by someone stalking on and administering a strong dose of the facts to the deceived hero.

Casting is crucial to the chemistry that bubbles in a production between hero and villain. In this account, Iago is played by Ewan McGregor, last seen on stage as charming, personable Sky Masterson in Grandage's production of Guys and Dolls and better known as a screen actor who embraces both the indie end of the spectrum (Young Adam) and the mainstream (Star Wars, Moulin Rouge!).

The role of Othello is taken by Chiwetel Ejiofor who, though he has lately concentrated on movies (for directors ranging from Woody Allen to Ridley Scott), boasts an impressive list of theatrical credits.

The director talks of Ejiofor's "natural goodness" as a person and of how as a performer "he has access to such extraordinarily open qualities. He's somebody who manages to keep hold of something very, very childlike, who takes people as they come, and has faith that people can be like himself".

In casting McGregor as Othello's nemesis, Grandage says that he is getting away from the "bushy-eyed, fruity, over-sophisticated villain who seems to have it all worked out in advance" to someone who can move between "a charm that is not feigned" in the public scenes where he is "honest" Iago and the dark and perverted confidences delivered in the soliloquies.

Grandage is alert to the ways in which Iago can be construed as the malign step-brother of Hamlet (a perception that Simon Russell Beale drew on when he played the part for Sam Mendes). Both characters are essentially on suicide missions; there is a mystery at the heart of both their stories (the cause of Iago's malignity; the reason for Hamlet's fatalism after the sea voyage). And silence is the end of the road for both these loquacious soliloquisers who, in Iago's case, break the rule that characters tell only the truth when speaking directly to the audience.

The irony is that while Iago may wrestle with the unknowable nature of his motivation, he knows one thing for sure: that Othello has "a free and open nature". As with the jealousy of Salieri, the composer destructively fascinated by Mozart's genius, Iago's envy is an inverted, glowing tribute. Grandage's production looks poised to bring out the full balance of forces in this fierce, bloody bullfight.

'Othello', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624),to 23 February

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?