Review by Sam Waite
Classic plays run the constant risk of being overproduced or losing their impact – however some, like Shakespeare’s Othello, have found new relevance as societal attitudes have changed. As the twentieth century came toward its conclusion, the titular role was played increasingly less by white men until the more text-accurate casting of Black performers as “the Moor” became commonplace.
With their version, first staged in 2008, Frantic Assembly are under no illusions that Othello as written was ever anything other than a Black man, and from the start demonstrate an acute awareness of the impact this has on the text. The repeated references to him as “the Moor” smack of racialised judgements, if not the outright use of slurs in harsher dialogue. Moving the action from the 1570s to a contemporary pub, with the war for control of Cyprus presented as inter-gang brawling, serves as a harrowing reminder of how easily the remarks against Othello translate to modern views.
An abridged version – certainly not the full five-act play – this adaptation pushes the ongoing war for control of Cyprus into the background, where it now appears briefly as some territorial gang-fighting. This allows a greater focus on the relationships between Othello and his men, now a group of rowdy lads in their local pub – the three women featured are equally boisterous and dressed more for the gym than any formal affair. While some aficionados will miss the complete text and long for the political struggles, the brevity and more insular focus largely serve the piece well.
Michael Akinsulire is suitably dynamic in the title role, but as in many productions, Othello is overshadowed by his Iago. Joe Layton’s turn as the cunning, manipulative right-hand man is equal parts sadistic villain and likeable lad from your local – even as his villainy unfolds before our eyes, it’s easy to see why the others hold him in such high regard. Other standouts in this universally strong cast include Felipe Pacheco and Chanel Waddock as a lovelorn, butt-of-the-joke Roderigo and a chavette-with-a-heart-of-gold Desdemona respectively.
The actors' cadence and bold character choices make it easy to follow the meaning, where the language could become inaccessible to less-familiar viewers. This is one of many ways in which director Scott Graham, along with co-adapter Steven Hoggett, has made this production so accessible for audience members less versed in Elizabethan language. With choreography co-created by Perry Johnson, the performance has sections of the story told purely through movement – this is particularly effective when setting the initial scene of the characters gathering around a pool table and in a delicate, explorative love scene between Othello and Desdemona.
Graham’s confident choices of how each character should move and how the group members should interact are helped by the sound design from Gareth Fry and Rob Parkinson, which allows the play to seamlessly transition from a scene where friends talk in a quiet pub to narrative dance performance and back again. Equally, the lighting designed originally by Natasha Chivers, later aided by Andy Purves, helps to quickly and easily alter the tone of a scene, particularly in the moments where the pub walls move away to introduce a new setting.
Laura Hopkins’ set is an important character in and of itself – the back wall can be warped and reshaped to aid a feeling of disorientation or can simply move apart to create an alleyway where darker parts of the plot unfold. There is beauty and elegance in the simplicity of the pub itself, with a pool table and a sofa able to be moved off stage as needed, and a colour scheme which invokes the kind of immediately inviting place where many of us have spent an evening among friends. Interestingly, Hopkins and Chivera/Purves’ work combines best in a small bathroom set, which is harshly lit, impractically sized and perhaps the most authentic element of the setting.
Graham and Hoggett’s adapting of the material does create some issues – Desdemona’s father Brabantio is now so scarcely seen or mentioned that his inclusion feels like an afterthought, and Iago’s continued friendship with Othello is confusing when the two aren’t united by war. But if you are able, as I generally was, to look past the minor quibbles that this kind of adaptation will often create in a reworked text, there is much to enjoy, and many of Shakespeare’s themes are still startlingly relevant.
Purists will undoubtedly have heavier critiques, and there will still be some who find the language completely inaccessible even with the more familiar delivery to help ease their understanding. Most viewers, however, should find plenty to love in Frantic Assembly’s well-crafted Othello, for which they should be immensely proud and which demonstrates the importance of this particular tragedy.
Othello plays at Lyric Hammersmith until 11th February. Tickets from lyric.co.uk
Photos by Tristram Kenton