There is an old joke which suggests ‘you should never drink in a flat-roof pub’. It is based on stereotyping as such pubs are often found in council estates; they are thought of as rough, the drinks likely come in plastic and the clientele low-income or working-class.
Frantic Assembly’s Othello has been placed in a modern UK pub and you can be assured it is a ‘flat-roof pub’. Gone are the wars and military commands, replaced instead with gang fights. The scale is smaller, the locals fighting in and around the pub, and turf wars take place in tracksuits, fought with baseball bats and pool cues. It’s clear from the start that a skilful scalpel has been taken to the original text, with the running time much reduced. In its place director Scott Graham has added exquisitely stylised physical theatre, choreographed by Graham and Perry Johnson, to tell parts of the tale through dance, fights and sex.
This elegant physical theatre heightens the violence by creating great contrast. It lures the audience in, making the sudden, non-stylised violence more of a shock. Even knowing the story of Othello well, the ending left me and the audience audibly gasping.
Michael Akinsulire’s Othello is initially strong. He is a leader of men with a huge physical presence, his tank top showing off muscle and strength. Later he portrays Othello as losing his mind, in the grip of madness as his paranoia intensifies, appearing ill and unnerved. He withdraws and seems somehow smaller and diminished. It’s an effective and contrasting physical performance. There is a constant undercurrent of loathing from Iago (Joe Layton – firing on all cylinders) towards Othello. Outside of the physical interaction there is less building of their friendship – or at least what Othello thinks to be their friendship. In perhaps one slight misstep, Othello does seems a little too gullible, whilst Iago is a bit obvious with his jealous villainy. Chanel Waddock is fantastic as Desdemona, especially with her rage, shock and devastation in the face of Othello’s accusations. Cassio (Tom Gill) and Roderigo (Felipe Pacheco) both garner our sympathy as we witness them being used and manipulated. Both performances remind us that their parts are tragic too.
There is an immense collection of talent behind the scenes. Laura Hopkins set design turns out to be deceptively simple, with pub walls sliding away to reveal other locations. These walls themselves are also malleable and shift, even around characters. Then the loud electronic music by Hybrid, along with Gareth Fry’s sound propels events forward with their intensity. It really feels that everyone is at the top of their game, making the whole production look and sound absolutely amazing.
I cannot help but compare this favourably to Baz Luerhman’s Romeo + Juliet. A successful updating of a centuries-old piece that tells the same story with the same words yet brings it into a modern context. The story is timeless; jealousy, paranoia and rage and Frantic Assembly have shown how to take the story, set it in a new time and location and not only succeed, but succeed in style.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Adapted by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett
Directed by: Scott Graham
Design by: Laura Hopkins
Original Lighting Design by Natasha Chivers
Further Original Lighting Design by: Andy Purves
Sound Design by: Gareth Fry
Music by: Hybrid
Choreography by: Scott Graham and Perry Johnson
Produced by: Frantic Assembly
Othello plays at Lyric Hammersmith until 11 February 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.
You can also read our recent interview with Chanel Waddock who plays Desdemona here.