“What, man! ’tis a night of revels”
At the hint of something daring and innovative in a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, it is all too easy to fall back on the truism that it probably isn’t for purists – heaven knows I was guilty of it just last week. But whereas not all adaptations necessarily work that well, Frantic Assembly’s brutal and breathless reimagining of Othello – arriving at the Lyric Hammersmith after a UK tour – is exactly the type of thing that purists should be made to see as a thrilling example of how powerful and effective an interpretation can be.
And that is what this Othello is in the end. To start counting the characters who’ve been excised, noting which speeches are spoken by someone else or which plot details have been omitted is to utterly miss the point. Adaptors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have brilliantly managed to take the play apart, capture its essence but then reconstruct it into something familiar but new. Full-length traditional productions (of variable quality) are two-a-penny but oh so rarely is Shakespeare this pulsating and compelling and visceral and modern.
Being a Frantic Assembly show means that there’s movement, and such movement too. The opening 10 minute sequence is breath-taking as it elevates the mundanity of pub life into something of balletic beauty to the insistent sound of Hybrid’s trance-like electronic score –setting the scene perfectly – and later on, shot-fuelled benders, fights and shags on the pool table receive a similarly stunning visual treatment. And though it might be heretical to say, the richness of the physical language – originally choreographed by Graham and Hoggett and further refined by Graham and Eddie Kay – speaks with just as much eloquence as the most poetic of the Bard’s passages.
So with (textual) losses come (production) gains as the play shifts onto an entirely different level. The setting is a rough-looking modern-day West Yorkshire pub called The Cyprus, ruled by the street gang of whom Othello is the leader and stalked by marauding rivals the Turks. And in a world suffused with such violence, the machinations of ambitious lieutenant Iago slot in perfectly – Steven Miller’s lean physicality giving a malevolent but relatable portrait of frustrated working-class masculinity, pushing hard against his all-consuming jealousy of Mark Ebulué’s Moor, who is actually a refreshingly normal guy underneath it all.
Likewise, the women come across completely differently here too – brimming with a swaggering confidence that matches their male compatriots and in full control of their sexuality. Leila Crerar’s Emilia is movingly done and Kirsty Oswald’s Desdemona is just spell-binding, able to bend Othello’s will with a well-judged hip grind and well able to argue the toss with him – their relationship feels so much more palpable that it becomes that much more devastating as it comes undone to her uncomprehending distress.
Laura Hopkins’ inspired set design also has a major part to play. The foldable walls that make up the pub reconfiguring endlessly to show the ladies loos where confidences are shared and the car park where murder is attempted. But they also reflect the internal landscapes of the characters too – closing in on the increasingly cornered Othello, and emphasising Cassio’s drunkenness (a strong Ryan Fletcher) in the best performance by a wall so far this year. A startlingly effective production that should appeal equally to purists and first-timers.