Review: Othello, Frantic Assembly
Bethany Stuart was pleasantly surprised by Frantic Assembly’s version of Shakespeare’s Othello, at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 8th October 2014.
When it comes to Shakespeare I am a self-confessed snob and traditionalist. Modern interpretations fill me with dread as, from my experience, trying to do something controversial and different often leads to mere distraction from the wordsmithery, and frustration on the part of the audience. As a result, when I first saw the set of Frantic Assembly’s production of Othello I was instantly plunged into a despair that left me sighing on my companion’s shoulder and apologising for bringing her to witness the 100 minute long murder of our beloved bard. This was clearly not going to be a traditional interpretation: the streets of Venice had been exchanged for “The Cyprus,” a pub lounge resembling Eastenders’ Queen Vic after a particularly heavy night of arson, and the virginal Desdemona had not only donned a velour tracksuit, but seemingly lost her virginity on a pool table and emblazoned a tribal tattoo on her coccyx to celebrate. After tensely watching the lengthy opening scene of interpretive dance something told me to bear with the company, to trust them on this one because they were certainly going to do something the audience hadn’t ever seen before.
“The Cyprus” becomes the social crux of what the audience assume to be a Northern community in the present day. Rather than the leader of an army, Othello is the head of a gang constantly at war with another and Desdemona is the daughter of what seems to be a landlord or business owner. This geographical and social displacement of Shakespeare’s original characters worked to make everything about the play more, for want of a better word, fierce. The previous wet wipe that was the holier-than-thou Desdemona became a feisty blonde, played by Kirstie Oswald, whose devotion to Othello was shown through her unwavering loyalty and the intensified sexualisation of their relationship. Everything about the production was more gritty and real, testament not only to the universality of Shakespeare’s works but the success of Frantic Assembly’s interpretation of the text.
A good production of Othello demands a charmingly manipulative Iago – without a strong villain the tragedy would disintegrate. Steven Miller’s interpretation was spot on throughout, laying low for the first few scenes and giving us just a taste of the anarchy he was going to fuel later on. He spoke directly to the audience, an absolute necessity with this character as developing a relationship is key to ensuring we subconsciously will him on. We also got the sense that he was the puppeteer of the play, clearly the most intelligent and knew exactly which moves to play and how to position himself. The scene which struck me most as showing the success of Iago was that in which he intoxicated Cassio: the characters moved seamlessly in and out of slow motion with each other and Iago was always perfectly placed to mask his actions to the other characters whilst keeping the audience constantly aware. The contemporisation of the play worked in this instance as we could relate to a down-and-out Iago, part of an underclass gang culture where alcohol and absence of money fuel his resentment for his wife, Emilia, and the desire to bring down everyone around him. In this context the audience could reasonably ask what he would have to lose.
Something must also be said for the innovative set which added another dimension to the play’s visual impact. Walls moved fluidly when pushed to give the impression of the character being consumed by the action of the play: Iago could hide in the shadows without detection and we seemed to enter the minds of the enraged Othello and the drunken Cassio, we saw emotional and physical flux affect the character’s immediate environment as well as through their spoken words. Likewise, the pool table in the centre of our vision became a symbol for all the key points of the drama: the marriage bed, the death bed and the desk from which Iago did his plotting.
Frantic Assembly incorporated powerful dance and a loud booming soundtrack to deliver some of Shakespeare’s best lines with a rough and unrefined punch. I rarely give out 5 stars, but in this instance I will make an exception: to convert an ardent traditionalist from the home counties with a boozy contemporary interpretation – featuring a costume department that must keep Lonsdale afloat – in less than two hours deserves some serious credit.
Visit Theatre Royal’s website for more information.