Othello, Lyric Hammersmith, review: Physical theatre at its most pulsating and potent

This stripped-down Othello hurls Shakespeare's play into our times

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The Independent Culture

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 Large sections of the text have been replaced by schematised movement.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.

 

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.

Until 7 February

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