Reviewed by Eoin Price
Why do we go to plays? Is it to see extraordinary fictions, or to watch people like us? On the one hand, we know we are entertained by illusion, on the other, we know that these illusions are performed by actors, who may or may not be ‘people like us’ but are people nonetheless. Some theatre productions come unstuck when faced with these apparently contradictory choices but Frantic Assembly’s Othello, playing even now, now, very now, at the Lyric Hammersmith, boldly and triumphantly distils the distinct pleasures of watching theatre. The finely-realized contemporary pub setting, coupled with a verse speaking style which is urgent rather than laboured and is delivered by a range of regional accents rather than the standard Received Pronunciation, seems to gesture towards verisimilitude and yet the cast repeatedly break into a series of brilliantly choreographed dance routines. Aided by Laura Hopkins’ ingenious set design, the company move between these different performance modes with fleet-footed ease.
One of the play’s editors, E.A.J. Honigmann, has called Othello the most unbearably exciting of Shakespeare’s tragedies; it can rarely have seemed as exciting as in Frantic Assembly’s hands. The production reaches its powerful conclusion in an hour and forty minutes and there is no interval to disperse the ratcheting tension. Inevitably, cuts mean a certain reordering of the text as it is usually conceived; some great lines are lost – individual viewers will have their favourites; mine is ‘Keep up your bright swords’ – but this is a fair trade. More problematic, though, is the decision to modernize. It’s not that I object to the principle of modernization – in many ways, it’s wonderful, and brings forth some smart and surprising mini-revelations – but the change of setting from Venetian state to pub poolroom, gives rise to occasional awkwardness. Othello (Mark Ebulue) is no longer a General but a gang leader and the Venetian political landscape, which Othello must navigate with skill, is replaced by the somewhat sparser political world of the public house. One of the consequences of this is that Othello’s showdown with Brabantio (Barry Aird) feels rushed and disconnected from the main story arc; Othello’s long, eloquent speech to the Venetian elders is greatly pared down. At the end of the production there’s a slightly incongruous moment in which Cassio is pronounced Governor of Cyprus; it seems like a remnant of a different play world and doesn’t really fit with the story being told in the present. These are miniscule quibbles though and, in any case, there are plenty of occasions when the modernization works wonderfully. An equivalence can be drawn between Venice’s state-sanctioned war in Cyrpus and the illicit streetfighting of the production and this underscores the ethical grubbiness at the heart of play: after all, Venice’s civility is predicated on bloodshed.
Indeed, the production seems to exist in a constant state of tension, as if always on the verge of violence. Initially, that violence is artful and bloodless. In a neat, interpolated scene, Othello’s war against the Turks is visualized; Othello and his crew throw down their enemies in a characteristically startling athletic dance. Later, though, the violence is horrifying and explosive: Iago (Steven Miller), in his desperation, inflicts a fatal neck wound on Emilia (Leila Crerar) with a beer bottle. The production ends with Iago receiving street justice; the lights go out as Cassio (Ryan Fletcher) swings a baseball bat at Iago’s head. But most affecting of all is the death of Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald). Earlier, Othello and Desdemona had enjoyed a sensual dance on the pool table which stood centre stage for much of the action; memorably, Desdemona fell backwards onto Othello who caught her and kissed her in a touching show of mutual trust. In the final scene, the pool table came to represent the death bed. As before, Othello and Desdemona danced on the table to electronic music by Welsh band Hybrid; this time though, Desdemona faced Othello in a plank position. From beneath her, Othello gripped her by the neck and strangled her. The death scene, an inversion of the earlier embrace, offers the production’s strongest reminder of how quickly violence can erupt from passion.
The pool table proves to be a versatile prop. At first, it is a communal site, on which the cast gather to play pool to the tune of a thumping beat. The men help the women play and their gyrations, together with the phallic nature of the pool cues, evokes, from the outset, a heavily sexualized youth culture. Later, the pool table is the place in which Iago bends Othello’s ear; in his first show of jealousy, Othello rolls the balls into the table pockets. At other times, the pool table is a soapbox from which characters can opine and it is regularly used as a jumping off-point for many of the elaborate dance manoeuvres. Elsewhere on the stage, a side door led to the bathroom cubicles in which it is implied Othello and Desdemona have sex. Later, the stage rotated to reveal the interior of the cubicle where, in a scene, common to pub and nightclub toilets throughout the country (minus the blank verse), Desdemona confided in Emilia. On another occasion the set rotated again to reveal the pub car park; here, Roderigo died and Cassio sustained a horrible eye injury. At times the set became like an incredibly expressive extra actor. As Iago tried surreptitiously to cross a crowded bar room, the walls began to move for him and created his own personal alcove in which he could hide and watch. The enactment of Cassio’s drunkenness was also extraordinary: at first he was lifted into the air and thrown around in another beautiful display of choreography, then, as he became drunker, he staggered, no longer propped up by the other cast members, and the walls of the pub staggered too. As so often happened in the production, the aesthetic pleasure of dance gave way to violence: Cassio head-butted Montano (Dritan Kastrati).
Frantic Assembly have delivered a fast-paced and inventive Othello of such quality that even a relative-curmudgeon like me is bound to wonder, not only at the production, but at the magic of theatre. Too often plays are served up to us according to a pre-acknowledged formula; Frantic Assembly have – joyfully, brilliantly, terrifyingly – ignored the expectations. The vocal patterns and rhetorical gestures out of which all drama is built here seem new and liberating. I didn’t really feel as if I was watching an especially radical interpretation of the play – broadly, the characters did what I thought they would do – and yet, at the same time, I felt like I was discovering a new play. See it, while you still can.