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by on 22 January 2023

Beware the Green-Eyed Monster


by William Shakespeare

Frantic Assembly at the Lyric Hammersmith until 11th February

Review by Patrick Shorrock

This production of Othello by Frantic Assembly, now at the Lyric Hammersmith, originated in 2008, but still feels like a fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s most durable plays.  Described as ‘adapted for Frantic Assembly by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’, it’s not for lovers of heritage drama or traditionalist purists, but is very much alive theatrically.  The text is brutally pruned.  It’s all over in less than two and half hours with an interval.  Much of the specific (and unnecessary) context about Othello being employed as a soldier by Venice has gone.  It’s not made clear what Cyprus refers to in this version, and nor does it need to be.

Instead, there are interludes with no dialogue where we get to observe these characters through their body language over a radiophonic soundtrack.  There is a strong sense of this company working collectively as a group as well as individuals, even though Scott Graham’s direction is specifically mentioned.  The movement (with Perry Johnson who is credited as Co-choreographer) is heightened and dramatically expressive, but never quite tips over into dance, while remaining engrossing to watch. 

It’s not a pretty sight.  The main setting (inventively designed by Laura Hopkins) is a pub with a snooker table and a fruit machine.  But it’s very definitely not the kind of pub where patrons of the Lyric Hammersmith are likely to stay and have a drink.   The ladies’ toilet where Desdemona and Emilia take refuge is in a horrific state of disrepair and uncleanliness.  Toxic masculinity is the default setting and there is a lot of peacocking and willy-waving with outsize snooker cues and baseball bats.  But it feels scary rather than ridiculous.  The sour menace before even a word of dialogue is spoken is clear.  This is perfect territory for the operations of this nasty Iago (Joe Layton in a ‘Just Do It’ T-shirt).

Between these set pieces are fragments of Shakespeare’s play, which come across as fresh and strange in their new context.  Othello and Desdemona use the terms My Lord and My Lady ironically and flirtatiously.   Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona isn’t some idealised version of old fashioned womanhood or the predictable middle class girl slumming it, but a ladette in sports kit with a Croydon facelift and plenty of attitude, applying glottal stops to her iambic pentameters without embarrassment.  Sir John Gielgud must be trembling in his grave, although I rather doubt that the Bard is.  Michael Akinsulire’s Othello has impressive presence as well as muscles that demonstrate why he is – at least to start with – top dog in this dysfunctional pack.  This is not an Othello who sees himself as a racist victim or in need of sympathy.  Felipe Pacheco’s Roderigo and Tom Gill’s Cassio are immature gamma males who don’t stand a chance. 

Shakespearean tragic finales with their escalating body count can sometimes seem embarrassingly implausible.  Not here, where there is that sense of shock where everything happens extremely slowly, but with an awful sense of inevitability.  This isn’t the only way to do Othello, but makes for an evening that should satisfy and disturb both those doing O-levels and those who have seen it plenty of times before. 

Patrick Shorrock, January 2023

Photography by Tristram Kenton

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