This Othello smashes you in the face like a broken bottle. Even before it begins hard pounding music spills out from the auditorium into the theatre foyer. Once inside the stage looks like a seedy bar complete with pool table, leatherette banquette and flashing fruit machine. A board proclaiming Karaoke Nite reveals that Shakespeare’s classic is not to be set in Cyprus but in a pub of that same name.
The play explodes into action not with Shakespeare’s words but with a stylised highly-choreographed masque which mimes, with athletic ferocity, an animalistic crop-topped hoodie culture. This Othello is the leader of a street gang whose physical prowess is beyond dispute in the bar-room brawls and gang warfare in the pub carpark. The atmosphere is charged with menace. Casual violence explodes periodically from below the surface.
This is physical theatre at its most potent. Large sections of the text have been replaced by schematised movement. It brings an aggressive sensuality as well as chilling threat.
Frantic Assembly’s production is a reworking of one it did to great acclaim in 2008. But most of the cast, and all the principals, are new in this touring production which ends at the Lyric Hammersmith in January. It is a stripped-down Othello which cuts more than half of Shakespeare’s text. As a result the play moves with tremendous speed and force, telling a story of sex, jealousy and violence which is utterly compelling.
Theatre highlights of 2015
Theatre highlights of 2015
1/7 Hamlet - Barbican
The advance sales broke records, but there will be 100 £10 tickets held back for each day’s performance of the most hotly anticipated classical production of the year: Benedict Cumberbatch as Shakespeare’s brainiest hero, directed by Lyndsey (Chimerica) Turner.
2/7 Bend it Like Beckham - Phoenix Theatre
Gurinder Chadha directs a musical adaptation of her film about a Sikh girl who defies her family for football, scored by Howard Goodall. We’re promised a celebratory state-of-the-nation comedy.
3/7 Hard Problem - National Theatre
The Hard Problem is consciousness in Tom Stoppard’s first new play for nine years. It’s set in a brain science institute and directed by Nicholas Hytner, who steps down at the National Theatre after a glorious reign, in April.
4/7 The Hook - Royal & Derngate
To celebrate the Arthur Miller centenary, James Dacre directs a world premiere, adapted by Ron Hutchinson from Miller’s FBI-suppressed screenplay about mobsters in the dockyards of 1950s Brooklyn.
5/7 Farinelli and the King - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Mark Rylance stars in this fascinating real-life story, dramatised by his wife Claire van Kampen, about Philippe V of Spain and the castrato whose voice cured him of insomnia and despair.
6/7 Antigone - Barbican and King's Theatre
The visionary Flemish director Ivo van Hove brings us Sophocles’s great tragedy in a modern version starring Juliette Binoche.
7/7 The Vote -Donmar Warehouse
James Graham aims for a media coup with his drama set in a fictional London polling booth in the last 90 minutes of Election Day 2015. The run culminates in a live broadcast on More4 on the day.
There is a price to pay for all this raw power and visceral vigour. Setting the play in the underbelly of society is persuasive. The mean misogynistic world it creates, with its own reductive rules and rituals, makes the action of the play inherently plausible. But it robs the play of its poetry and depth. Steve Miller gives a stark performance of casual cruelty but his Iago offers low cunning rather than psychological subtlety. Mark Ebulue’s muscular Moor lacks mystique or majesty; his Othello is a primal screamer rather than a tragic hero.
Yet peopling the play with tough underclass characters pays dividends elsewhere. The women are not simpering cyphers but feisty fighters struggling against the odds in a macho male-dominated world. Kirsty Oswald has an impressive dynamic range as Desdemona and Leila Crerar is exceedingly self-possessed as Emilia.
Director Scott Graham, and movement director Eddie Kay, make spectacular use of slow motion in both fights and the binge-drinking scene in which Cassio (Ryan Fletcher) becomes a nicely-understated drunk. There are some imaginative gymnastic effects in Othello and Desdemona’s courtship, love-making and deathbed scenes, all on the pool table. The lighting subtly conjures the world as Iago sees it. And Emilia and Iago deftly fill gaps in the text with how they act in moments of silence.
Even Laura Hopkin’s set is part of the action. The articulated back wall of the pub undulates and ripples to mirror Cassio’s drunkenness or Othello’s sense of his options closing around him.
This is a pulsating production which hurls Othello well and truly into our times.
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