Othello

William Shakespeare, adapted by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett
Frantic Assembly and Curve, Leicester
York Theatre Royal

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Joe Layton (Iago), Tom Gill (Cassio), Felipe Pacheco (Roderigo), Oliver Baines (Montano) and Matthew Trevannion (Brabantio) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Michael Akinsulire (Othello), Joe Layton (Iago) and Chanel Waddock (Desdemona) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Michael Akinsulire (Othello) Credit: Tristram Kenton

First staged in 2008—and subsequently revived in 2014—Frantic Assembly’s reimagining of Othello is a bold and visceral piece of work.

Inspired by the simmering racial tensions dissected in Nick Davies’s book Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain, Scott Graham (artistic director and co-founder of Frantic Assembly) transplants the action of Othello from sixteenth-century Venice to a pub on a dilapidated housing estate in post-industrial England. In this world, the title character is not the general of a fearsome army but rather the leader of a local gang decked out in tracksuits.

What has remained the same, however—despite the change in time and setting—is the play’s masterful exploration of sexual jealousy, racism and violence. Othello (Michael Akinsulire), a black man in a predominately white community, has won the heart of Desdemona (Chanel Waddock) despite the protestations of her disapproving father. However, this romance is destroyed by Iago (Joe Layton)—a demi-devil in a baseball cap—who slanders Othello’s young bride in order to drive him into a murderous rage.

I have seen some excellent productions of Othello in my time (the Sheffield Crucible production starring Clarke Peters and Dominic West from The Wire leaps to mind), but this is undoubtedly the most compelling version I have encountered.

When I learned that this staging would last only 110 minutes (excluding interval), I was sceptical to say the least. How could the company possibly do justice to Shakespeare’s play when so much of the text (about an hour’s worth) would have to be excised? I am pleased to report that Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett prove themselves to be sensitive and judicious adaptors, preserving the structure of the original tragedy and the lion’s share of its most memorable dialogue.

Frantic Assembly are famous for their physical approach to theatre, and this is certainly the case with this production which is full of arrestingly staged sequences. During the opening minutes of the play, the relationships between the characters are brought to vibrant life through an intricately choreographed dumbshow which sees the performers propelling themselves around the stage. Not a word is spoken, but the world of the play is firmly established.

The physicality of the direction is also reflected in Laura Hopkins’s inventive set design, which moves to reflect the experiences of the characters. When Cassio (Tom Gill) becomes drunk, the walls undulate in a wave-like motion. When Othello commits murder, the walls draw back so that he can distance himself from his crime. The pub décor, including a pool table and slot machine, is strikingly effective.

Michael Akinsulire excels as Othello, capturing the strength and charisma that makes the character so admired in the first half of the play, before collapsing into wide-eyed paranoia during the second. Also impressive is Joe Layton as Iago, who skilfully conveys the false jocularity that makes Shakespeare’s most cunning villain seem so trustworthy.

Like Ophelia in Hamlet or Cordelia in King Lear, Desdemona can come across as a drip in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Chanel Waddock is anything but, investing the character with street smarts and a steely resolve. Kirsty Stuart brings considerable grit to the role of Emilia, and I particularly enjoyed the scene where she discourses about marriage in the ladies’ toilets.

Other elements which contribute to the dynamism of the production include Hybrid’s propulsive dance music and powerful lighting from Natasha Chivers and Andy Purves.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the rapturous response that Othello received during the performance I attended. York Theatre Royal was packed to the rafters with schoolchildren (often the most difficult theatregoers to please) and it became apparent very early on that this production had fully captured their attention.

Reviewer: James Ballands