Othello @ Lyric Hammersmith, London

cast list
Jimmy Akingbola, Claire Louise Cordwell, Charles Aitken, Leila Crerar, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Richard James-Neale, Marshall Griffin, Eddie Kaye, Minnie Crowe

adapted and directed by
Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett

For the first five minutes of Frantic Assembly’s modern, urban reworking of Othello there are no words, just an explosion of music and movement.

Bodies writhe and sway to a throbbing beat, letting the audience know they are very far away from Shakespeare’s Cyprus.

Adapted by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, the play has been relocated to a run-down estate pub in West Yorkshire (named The Cypress), complete with pool table, fruit machine and tattooed, tracksuit clad patrons: you can almost smell the stale beer and salt and vinegar crisps.
This is a physical, visceral production that rattles through the text in less than two hours. It’s an exciting, energetic thing, one that incorporates elements of dance into the mix and is liberally spattered with stage blood, not to mention the odd gob of vomit.Othello, as played by Jimmy Akingbola (recently seen as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger at Jermyn Street Theatre), is the only black face in a predominantly white working class neighbourhood where rivalries run rife and violent clashes are common. Yet, despite his otherness, he is a respected figure, admired and feared; he has an air of calm and confidence about him and comes across very much as a man among boys. One can see why Desdemona was drawn to him, marrying him without her father’s knowledge.

The production dodges many of the potential pitfalls of doing Shakespeare-in-a-pub. Much care has been taken in creating a believable world and Othello’s violent reaction to his apparent betrayal seems slightly more plausible given that his reputation and status are tied up in his relationship with Desdemona. Not everything works though. A handkerchief seems like an odd love token given the nature of the setting and Iago, though well played by Charles Aitken, is just too inscrutable: it’s hard to see what drives him to do what he does hatred alone doesn’t seem convincing, nor does it feel like a response to Othello’s ‘transgression’ in taking a white girlfriend it feels more personal than that. The bloody denouement also seems excessive to the point of silliness, the tragic element is diluted.

Akingbola though has real presence as Othello, even if he seems a little too controlled in the role, making his violence, when it comes, feel forced. Claire-Louise Cordwell is a Desdemona with fire and bite. She clearly revels in her status as Othello’s chosen one, but won’t take any nonsense. When she senses that Othello can’t be won over and is angry enough to harm her, she fights and kicks and refuses to meekly submit.

Laura Hopkin’s set is simple but effective. The pub in which the action takes place is realistically grotty, yet it has these concertina-like walls that ruck and ripple and can be pulled apart. This is a nice touch and one that seems particularly apt during the scene of Cassio’s inebriation, when the walls seem to sway along with him. The driving yet evocative music by Hybrid also serves to give the piece a pulse.

This is an accessible, energetic and well-executed update where real attention has been given to providing the play with a contemporary context that works; it hasn’t just been plonked in a modern setting for the sake of it. It comes apart somewhat towards the end, but by then it has already made its mark.

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