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Frantic Assembly’s Othello by William Shakespeare at Leicester Curve

This is the kind of production that, if you’re as mischievous as I can be, you’d want to bring a purist or two along just to hear the litany of complaints from them after the show. For one thing, it’s largely set in a pub – and not a sparkly clean and slightly too expensive gastropub, either. It’s one of those places that’s been around a while, with some patrons who are, as it were, part of the furniture, and one wonders whether some of the sheer physicality in some of the choreography is indicative of how sticky the floor I would imagine a pub like ‘The Cypress’ would be.

Frantic Assembly's Othello. Photo Tristram Kenton
Frantic Assembly’s Othello. Photo Tristram Kenton.

It’s some moments before anyone says anything, and in a lengthy opening scene, I found myself asking who is fighting whom, and why – were some of them merely doing what people do on a drunken weekend night on the town, or was it something that went far beyond that? It’s a relatively intimate production, with ten on-stage characters shared between nine actors, and while re-setting it in Blighty does not necessarily mean getting rid of various courtiers, servants and messengers (the pomp and pageantry following the death of Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated there are still plenty of those around, even now), the absence of Othello’s Clown, for instance, as well as the Duke (of Venice, or Wellington, or Hackney, or anywhere) allows for a more streamlined and focused narrative. There are fewer interruptions to the storyline in this version because there are fewer people who can interrupt in the first place.

It’s tempting to think the swords have been completely replaced by baseball bats (spoiler alert: not so), and while the production seems to be a faithful one at face value, audience members with a decent knowledge of the play can have some fun working out what lines have been reassigned and reordered. Still, it’s unmistakably Othello, complete with “how now”s and Desdemona (Chanel Waddock) being denounced as a “strumpet”. Technically, some of the gritty realism of the pub setting is lost with dialogue being in blank verse, but the decision to stick with Shakespeare’s text, even if has been adjusted (or adapted, to use Frantic Assembly’s own description of what they’ve done with it), works remarkably well. It’s not as if they’ve tried to introduce mobile telephony into proceedings.

The second half is more gripping than the first. The title character (Michael Akinsulire) is suitably assertive and confident, able to call the others to attention, and without militaristically barking orders. Roderigo (Felipe Pacheco) is scrappy and streetwise, while Joe Layton’s Iago seems to get his own way without too much of a struggle, until his deviousness all comes crashing down like a Ponzi scheme that meets its natural conclusion. A considerable number of younger people were in the audience on press night, partially because there are always English literature students who come to a Shakespeare play, and partly because of Frantic Assembly’s considerable work with teachers and students. They were absorbed and engaged throughout, and audibly gasped, with justification, on more than one occasion as the play reached its end.

Truth be told, it starts with violence and ends with violence, and there’s more violence in between, which raises the question: does the production glorify violence, even inadvertently? For me, it does not, but rather reflects – sadly – the society in which we live: it is not unheard of for the sort of events that transpire in this show to actually happen in this day and age. A political leader has even been derided for claiming it is “part and parcel” of city living. Building to a mesmerising crescendo, this production has a lot going for it, and is worth seeing for its imagination and creativity.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Frantic Assembly presents its award-winning and electrifying take on Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder. Othello’s passionate affair with Desdemona becomes the catalyst for jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents.

Frantic Assembly takes Shakespeare’s muscular and beautiful text, combines its own bruising physicality, and presents an Othello firmly rooted in a volatile 21st century. This is a world of broken glass and broken promises, of poisonous manipulation and explosive violence.

As relevant today as it ever was, Othello exposes the tension, fear and paranoia buried beneath the veneer of our relationships and how easily that can be maliciously exploited.

TOM GILL – Cassio

Othello is directed by Scott Graham, designed by Laura Hopkins, with lighting design by Natasha Chivers, sound design by Gareth Fry, music by Hybrid and casting by Will Burton CDG.

TUE 20 SEP – SAT 1 OCT 2022

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