Review: Othello by Frantic Assembly. Curve.

Shakespeare’s Othello

Adaptation by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett

Directed by Scott Graham

Curve Leicester

Tuesday 20th September – Saturday 1st October 2022 (Touring)

Following highly acclaimed runs in 2008 and 2014, Frantic Assembly’s Othello returns this autumn with an updated version for 2022. As we take our seats, it is already clear that this is a bold reimagining. The set design by Laura Hopkins takes us to what appears to be a northern working men’s pub – muted shades of burgundy dominate the striped wallpaper, threadbare carpet, and pock-marked leather banquette. A pool table commands centre stage and there is the requisite slot machine glowing to the side. Everything has an authenticity to it, even the three grimy and opaque windows.

A scene from Othello by William Shakespeare @ Curve, Leicester. A Frantic Assembly production, co-produced with Curve. Directed by Scott Graham.

We have been transported to The Cypress pub, far removed from the island of Cyprus, the setting of Shakespeare’s original; yet it contains all the same power struggles, jealousies and dissolution that still make Othello intriguing today. This is the dark underbelly of society where disenfranchised young adults seek to find their place in the ‘hierarchy’ and prove their worth through threat, violence, and sex.

Othello tells the story of the titular hero, a black man in love with a white woman, Desdemona (Chanel Waddock). He suffers a spectacular fall from grace as misinformation, miscommunication and manipulation, largely initiated by Iago (Joe Layton), serve to feed his own insecurities and anxieties. Othello, superbly played by Michael Akinsulire, is no longer a general in the Venetian army, but a local gang leader and his gradual disintegration is beautifully portrayed.

The play begins with a game of pool in which movement tells a story of its own. Othello, the newcomer, and outsider, has the approval of Brabantio (Matthew Trevannion), but needs to show his value in battle. His chance comes when three thugs enter the pub and are beaten off by Othello and the gang including Iago, Montano (Oliver Baines), Cassio (Tom Gill) and Roderigo (Felipe Pacheco).

This section is mesmerising in its choreography. We see sexual tension and jockeying for position: tentative connections or illicit liaisons being forged; realpolitik and misdirection; culminating in a rousing victory dance that makes you as an audience member want to leave your seat, storm the stage, and join in the celebrations.

The adrenaline is palpable, the excitement contagious as we wait to see what happens next. ‘I am not what I am,’ declares Iago, Othello’s ensign. Make no mistake, Othello is a misnomer. This play really belongs to its anti-hero, ably played by Layton. A sly word in an other’s ear, a prompting over there, money exchanging hands and Iago’s plot to bring down Othello gathers pace.

The section where Cassio is force-fed shots is totally transfixing. Furthermore, the music by Hybrid frequently has a hypnotic quality. There is beauty, grace, and athleticism of movement, which leaves you spellbound and wanting more. Tableaus, slow motion, and acrobatics showcase Frantic Assembly’s stunning trademark choreography.

Wherever you look on the stage, there is an actor fully committed to compelling storytelling and pinpoint characterisation. For example, in previous productions I have seen, the women are relegated to ciphers, particularly Bianca (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) and Emilia (Kirsty Stuart). Not so, in this interpretation. Along with Desdemona, these women are strong and passionate, despite the restrictions placed on them by society. I loved Stuart’s portrayal of Emilia, especially her impassioned speech to Desdemona regarding women, ‘…have we not affections?/Desires for sport, and frailty as men have?/Then let them use us well…’

Violence is always close to the surface throughout. A baseball bat, pool cues, and beer bottles are constantly brandished. The set can also be quickly adapted to a post-industrial wasteland, where characters are ambushed and set upon. This is a dark and troubled urban world, where characters wrestle inwardly with their demons and outwardly with their foes.

Be warned, the climax is particularly bloody and graphic, but is all the better for that. Too often, I have seen Othello decline andwither away after the death of Desdemona, but this version does the opposite and is genuinely shocking, but always credible.

Othello is a play about racism, jealousy, and intrigue. Moreover, in an age of ‘fake news’ it feels more relevant than ever, with characters choosing to believe what they hear without substantiation. Notwithstanding, it is also about bravery, courage and love, which is what Frantic Assembly have brought us tonight in their astute choices and exceptional use of movement.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (inc. 20-minute interval)

Age Recommendation: 14+ contains violent scenes.

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