Review – Othello, Frantic Assembly, Oxford Playhouse, 21st October 2014

OthelloOne of the great things about Shakespeare is that you can play him dead straight, at the time in which the play was written, all Elizabethan costume, jesters and madrigals, and it works just fine. Or you can jazz him up and modernise him, setting the play in any era, under any governmental regime, anywhere in the world, and as like as not it will adapt to its new surroundings – to some extent. I wasn’t overly keen on the 1970s setting of the recent Richard III – a bit cynical, I thought; but I loved the anarchic rock concert of Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, the East London Comedy of Errors at the National a couple of years ago, and all those anachronistic garden capers at the Oxford Shakespeare Company are a joy.

Frantic Assembly’s Othello takes place in a pub; a world where power struggles and sex take place on the pool table, where private arguments are carried out in the Ladies’ toilet, where chalking the end of your man’s cue is foreplay, where Venetian sea skirmishes happen in the car park, where broken bottles of Stella and baseball bats replace Shakespeare’s knives and “bright swords”. It’s an environment where hail fellow well met can turn in an instant to You’re going home in a St John’s Ambulance. It’s a place where courtship rituals can be at their most provocative, with the inevitable rivalries, jealousies, passions and secrets that follow; everything from love to hate and all that’s in between. In other words, a perfect place to set Othello.

Iago and RoderigoNine performers play ten roles in this neatly compressed and creatively scissored adaptation by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. There’s no Duke, no Gratiano, no Clown; no sundry gentlemen, messengers, sailors, senators or other attendants; cutting away some extraneous characters creates an additional sense of urgency and focus as Iago sets about manipulating all the pub regulars in rapid crescendo, like some godlike puppeteer. It’s really not for purists; speeches are swapped around and given to other characters, completely out of context – I can’t help but think that if you were seeing this production to help you with English Literature A level, it could confuse you more than assist. But that’s really not the point of it. The point is to make a dynamic, punchy, vivid drama in a recognisable setting, whilst retaining the original’s linguistic style and main themes – which, as always with Shakespeare, never go out of fashion and always remain relevant.

The Moor of VeniceYou enter the auditorium to the loud jangling sound of technothrob (although there’s no jukebox, there’s maybe a rave going on somewhere) which really sets the mood of sweaty youth going for it hammer and tongs; in fact, throughout the whole play the invasive music by Hybrid becomes a useful tool in speeding the story along to its inexorable conclusion. The set and design are excellent, portraying a seedy pub that hasn’t had money spent on it for years. Old, cheap furnishing, grimy wallpaper – we’ve all been in that kind of watering hole. The pool table is the centre of the action, the place where the pecking order is settled, the natural magnet for all the testosterone bubbling under the surface. The fruit machine becomes a hideaway for onlookers and eavesdroppers, its flashing lights creating a hollow sense of excitement in this drab venue. If this is where you go for a good time – then you need to up your game a little.

Othello and DesdemonaThis modern setting is obviously going to attract more younger people to the theatre – and I’m all for that. However, I did have a slight panic when I saw quite how many under 18s there were at the performance we attended last Tuesday night. In a play that poses many questions about prejudice, I guess it highlighted one of mine – a fear that too many youngsters in a theatre leads to giggling, chatting, fidgeting, texting and over-whooping. Well, in the modern vernacular, My Bad. Yes there was a whoop when it started. After that – silence, attention, mesmerisation; that unmistakable body language of people sitting as far forward in their seats as possible in an attempt to get closer to the action; proportionate reactions of laughter and horror to what’s happening on stage. Whatever it is they’re doing in this production, they’re doing it right. The sold-out audience was totally rapt.

Pool players balletI was expecting a modern telling of the story; what I wasn’t expecting was such excellent physical theatre. The incorporation of balletic movement and mime into some set pieces worked astoundingly well. It begins with a lengthy but compelling scene where the characters confront their passions, hopes and fears around the pool table, jostling for prominence, ridiculing the weak, exercising laddish behaviour to the full – all done to riveting dance and movement direction by Eddie Kay. Naturally it distances the performance from reality to a certain extent – you don’t normally get pool players doing a pas de deux – but it’s no more unreal than spending the next 100 minutes talking in iambic pentameters. There’s another scene that depicts Cassio getting drunk, acted out in a similar way. It’s a few minutes of utterly stunning physical theatre, performed by the cast with strength, precision and humour. A fantastic mix of styles that really stands out.

Cassio's having a fewAny decent production of Othello has got to have a strong powerful Iago. Steven Miller is perfect. He’s superbly manipulative, wheedling, conniving, and ruthless and you believe in him 100%. When he’s dropping all the hints to Othello about Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, that are purely designed for Othello to latch his suspicions on to, even I started believing him, and I’ve seen the play before. Considering that, depending on your interpretation, this play has at least some element of racism in it, Mr Miller even has the palest of complexions to make the greatest contrast with Othello. Iago has to adopt different tones with so many of the different characters, and Mr Miller gets that variation of tone brilliantly. Mark Ebulue’s Othello stands slightly apart from the rest of the group – as he should – more statesmanlike in the gang, more thoughtful in his responses, and, naturally, with more of his attention on Desdemona than on the lads. His decline into jealousy and barbaric revenge is very neatly done, reacting automatically to almost every titbit thrown out by Iago. Not sure it ever quite reaches tragic hero status, but you probably don’t often get one of those in a public bar anyway.

Kirsty Oswald plays Desdemona with a superb balance between what my mother would have called a “good-time girl” who hangs around blokes in bars but also speaks with gentle and innocent eloquence with her beloved Othello. The balance is very well depicted when she is driven to anger by Othello’s blundering stupidity – no demure sweet girl this, but one who is well able to stand up for herself against the leader of the pack – despite her distress at his falling out of love with her. It’s a very well judged performance. I also very much liked Ryan Fletcher as Cassio, quick to ire, even quicker to overdo the shots, full of bluster and easily fooled; and a chavtastic portrayal of Roderigo by Richard James-Neale, with quirky vocal mannerisms and ineffectual bombast – extremely effective.

IagoI’m not a fan of violence and there’s quite a lot of it in this production. Even when masked by strong dance and movement, there’s no hiding from the gruesomeness of the bloodletting and the old-fashioned kickings meted out. The car park three-way assault by and on Roderigo, Cassio and Iago looks horribly realistic and brutal. Whilst I appreciate that this is the way of life in some places, and that it wasn’t out of place in this production, I still felt that it glorified violence, and I’m uncomfortable with that. I must say though that the final scene, laden with violence as it is, created a stunning visual tableau at the end. The fact that Iago and Emilia are married was only obscurely referenced – I’d actually forgotten about that relationship and it wasn’t until the very end that it was made clear – I had thought she was rather gung-ho in her not caring much about Iago’s taking the handkerchief – that explained it. And another pet hate – no interval! With 110 minutes or so of intense drama, I was shifting buttocks about three quarters of the way in, and I really could have done with a fifteen minute break. There were plenty of points around the Act Three mark where a pause would have created a dramatic cliffhanger, ready for the action to continue once we’d had a short rest. The drive to have no interval is like a false machismo: “My production is so hard that you can’t let the intensity drop”. To all those directors and producers who think this – you’re wrong.

Oth and DesSo with a few minor cavils I’d say this is a really exciting and punchy evening at the theatre that brings an old classic right up to date and exposes its bitter and harsh truths in an unexpectedly suitable new way. The tour continues to Leicester, Doncaster, Birmingham, Salford and the Lyric Hammersmith. If you like your Shakespeare in your face – and you’re not a purist – this is definitely for you!

P.S. If you want to know more about the production and how it grew into what it is today there is an excellent resource at Frantic Assembly’s website.

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