Described by The Times as “the most innovative and progressive company around”, physical theatre group Frantic Assembly have a fierce reputation to uphold. Their co-production with the Theatre Royal Plymouth of Shakespeare’s Othello won the TMA Award for Best Direction when it premièred in 2008 – an award it wholeheartedly deserved.
The classic text was originally adapted by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and is cleverly intertwined with Frantic Assembly’s signature choreography that sublimely emanates power and poignancy. This thrilling tale exploring paranoia and jealousy is seamlessly moved to a seedy pub, complete with pool table and fruit machine.
Mark Ebulue is physically strong and commanding as Othello, now a bouncer rather than a general in the Venetian army. His wife Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald) contrasts with a flirty, irresistible playfulness, rightly remaining bewildered by her husband’s accusations of her infidelity. It is Steven Miller, however, who has the task of playing the calculating Iago, and he does so superbly: his sly and devious nature is never too exaggerated and we almost enjoy watching his meddling in his ‘friend’ Othello’s marriage.
Designer Laura Hopkins has envisaged a perfectly scruffy set, with exquisite attention to detail. Graffiti-covered brick walls provided the backdrop for graphic murderous acts, while the ladies’ loos – where Desdemona and Emilia (Leila Crerar) dressed in tracksuits discuss their testosterone-fuelled men – are aptly grotty and decaying, to suit the Northern England working-class town being depicted. Director Graham maximises Hopkins’s creation, using the pub’s pool table optimally to become Desdemona’s deathbed in the tragic final scene.
The choreography is pacey and athletic throughout, revealing the underlying animalistic quality of this gang. Movement director Eddie Kay skilfully integrates pool cues, rather than swords, into imaginative fight sequences. Most memorable is Cassio (Ryan Fletcher) in an amusing drunken state, with his body being physically manipulated by the male ensemble, assisted by a rippling backdrop that allows the audience an insight to his inebriation. The addition of such breathtaking choreography amidst the verse only enhances the brutal plot line, heightening the audience’s emotional response to the destruction of friendships, jealousy and sex, not to mention the horrific violence.
Maybe the actors themselves have compromised vocal clarity at times for a stunning visual effect, but the production as a whole does not seem to suffer because of it. The audience quickly tunes into the Northern accent that the Shakespearian language is delivered in, and actually can appreciate such a bold move. The honesty and bravery of this company is so exciting, and their adaptation of Othello breathes life into the classic work: we see the relevance in our modern world of such racial prejudice. This is Shakespeare’s genius reinvented.
Othello is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 7 February. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.