January is off to a fine start with Frantic Assembly’s transferral of their 2014 critically acclaimed production of Othello from Theatre Royal Plymouth to London’s Lyric Hammersmith. In this updated version, Shakespeare’s play of love and revenge is transported toThe Cypress (a pub in North England), exposing the jealousy, competition and violence of a microcosm of a complicated group of working-class men and women. Heavily cut and truncated, the narrative does become… frantic. But, if you can shake off a purist attitude to the text, there is much to be discovered in this production. It distils the urgent sense of reaction, as time and action spiral out of control, ramping up the volume literally and metaphorically. The story seems to trip over itself as it emerges against a pulsating electro soundtrack.
Othello (Mark Ebulue) is permitted sequences in which he demonstrate his excellence in the ‘battlefield’ we only hear about in other versions, unveiling a unique physical dimension to the character. He is more the brute force we might find in his ‘character descriptions’ planted throughout the text, and less the orator-politician of a Laurence Olivier portrayal. Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald) evokes an aggressive charm that is also highly refreshing. Defiant to the last, she is empowered where many Desdemonas may have faltered in the past. As a result, she undoubtedly becomes the victim wholly of Iago’s manipulation, and less of her inability to grasp the situation, to make Othello see reason. Steven Miller warms into the part of Iago, excelling in the final scene. However, the standout performance undoubtedly goes to Leila Crerar as Emilia. She brings an entirely new perspective to the character, exposing a raw defiance in the face of a serial abuser. Her speech on what she might be prepared to do ‘for all the world’ was vulnerable and tender- an actress to watch.
Laura Hopkins’ design, aided by Gareth Fry’s sound design, contributes so much to this production. The entire aesthetic is on the mark, undulating and unfolding with the drama. The focus on the pool table, as a substitution for the martial bed acknowledged so regularly in the text, reduces and derides the concept of marriage and the act of sex; they both become spontaneous, voyeuristic and impulsive. The whole production not only transposes Othello into a modern time, it absorbs modern attitudes, perspective and opinion.
So, why four stars? The problem with the production is not necessarily the production itself, but the venue. I felt Frantic Assembly’sOthello would have benefitted far more in a modern studio theatre than the Lyric. The proscenium arch and raised eye level jar somewhat against the endeavours of a talented cast portraying a complex, degraded and dangerous world.