Monday, 30 January 2023

REVIEW: Frantic Assembely’s Othello at The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

A tragedy fuelled by jealousy and revenge, Othello, can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most challenging works to navigate. Loyalty and love lose out too dark thoughts and desires that lurk in the best of us which performers and audiences alike must confront in themselves. 

Frantic Assembly’s two-hour adaptation of this complex text finds a way to make it relatable as they bravely tackle challenging aspects of the human condition amplified in it with gusto for a modern-day audience. It is a visual retelling of the story as much as an exploration of classical language with a contemporary tung and has something to offer any die-hard lover of Shakespeare or those more intimidated by the Bard.

Set in a rough and ready pub somewhere in the UK, the plot is true to the original but adapted to inhabit the world of an urban gang who spend their time playing pool, drinking and fighting. It is a dishonest environment, full of men who can’t seem to exist beyond their own pride. Within this toxicity, Desdemona shines as a beacon of loyalty but like a martyr, also dies of it. Military references and Othello’s leadership which is constantly threatened by mutiny, comfortably translate into this visceral social structure effortlessly. 

All the above offers a rich visual landscape which designer, Laura Hopkins, has effectively interpreted into what can be described as an aesthetic grimness; the sound design by Gareth Fry and the Soundtrack by Hybrid contributes with extreme moments that sit between those with the energy of a rave and those which are subtle yet anxiety inducing.

The most comforting aspect of this adaptation is that it feels familiar and possible. The passionate love between Desdemona (Chanel Waddock) and Othello (Michael Akinsulire) which turns into a fatal example of domestic violence, speaks to a culture of toxic masculinity far too contemporary, and, highlights the female voice as strong yet doomed when at the mercy of such a reality.

Overall, the performances are strong from the cast of nine actors. Joe Layton finds an uncomfortable truth in his portrayal of the manipulative, charming and violent Iago and Kirsty Stuart brings a powerful strength yet defeat to Emilia. Waddock’s Desdemona offers a spunk and charisma which heightens the impact of her destruction and Akinsulire’s Othello finds a combination of warmth and unhinged jealousy necessary for the character.

Unfortunately, however, despite a brave treatment of the play's themes, Frantic Assembly shy away from the level of horror it successfully sets up and, at times, loses grip of the drama in favour of a lightness. The evening I attended the show, on several occasions, the audience met crucial moments of mental turmoil experienced by the characters with laughter. I can’t help but feel like they deserved more. There are also some pacing issues with the show's overall structure, particularly during lengthy text-based scenes that sit outside of Frantic Assembly’s signature high-energy physical sequences.

As a narrative device, movement sequences are used to replace cut sections of text and highlight primal masculine behaviour through stylised brawls and drunken chaos which are executed with a confident and nuanced quality expected from the company. However, on this occasion, they do not make the most of their opportunity to integrate and intertwine the robust language of the work with the choreography. Each element remains generally separate.

After over 25 years in the industry, the style of a Frantic show can be somewhat predictable and there is room for the company to evolve beyond their comfort zone. However, there is no denying they have a skill in physical storytelling and creating a connection with audiences that makes their work accessible and exciting to watch. Othello is no exception and well worth a visit to the Lyric Hammersmith.

A Frantic Assembly Production, co-produced with Curve.

Originally a Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth collaboration, in association with Royal & Derngate Northampton and developed at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Review by Stephanie Osztreicher

Rating: ★★★

Seat: NA | Price of Ticket: £15 - £44

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