The National Youth Theatre ensemble gives a knockout performance in the Frantic Assembly adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The vibrant, fast-moving and truly engaging production deserves praise in its every creative aspect.
The modern setting of the play moves the action from Venice to Yorkshire and takes place in a pub run by a local youth gang. Othello becomes a leader of somewhat unruly group of warring youngsters who bicker and vie for power.
The stage design, though simple, is very effective: on the rather bare stage dominated by three (retractable!) columns there is a snooker table doubling as a bed and a couple of small round tables with stools. When the scarce furniture is removed the dinghy pub becomes a battleground for the estate’s gang conflicts.
The production opens with a 10-minute musical show: the ensemble arrives raucously on the stage to the loud, pumping beats of pop music – they set the stage, they dance and they create brief vignettes showing romantic relationships, friendships and feuds. Amidst the whirling crowd of young people flirting and playing snooker we can see a budding romance between Othello and Desdemona and the unhappy Rodrigo frustrated by it. There is Iago already jealous of Othello’s preferment towards Cassio. It is a brilliant opening to the show and its energy and clever character development helps to set the scene.
The NYT ensemble acting impresses throughout the performance. Particularly good are Rebecca Hesketh-Smith as Desdemona, Jamie Rose as Iago and Curtis John Kemlo as Rodrigo. The kind of on-stage chemistry they all create is pure professional gold. Actresses playing Desdemona often play a secondary role in most productions while Othello’s downfall engineered by Iago dominates. But you cannot take eyes off Hesketh-Smith whose stage presence and physical acting allow a quite different portrayal of Othello’s wife: she offers not a gentle and fearful Desdemona but a young woman full of spunk and intelligence, who even facing sure death fights courageously to the bitter end. Rose’s Iago is one of the better depictions of Othello’s biggest enemy I have seen. He excels at delivering Shakespeare’s lines in this production and instead of a laddish and charming baddie he gives us an ingenious sociopath who uses his wit and violence with ease and no remorse. But the best character creation goes to Curtis John Kemlo. His Rodrigo is unpleasant, weedy and nervous, but also profoundly tragic. In the production Kemlo is shown as an outsider, someone who does not fit in and really wants to. He is too weak in the gang hierarchy to take what he dreams of, Desdemona’s love and revenge on Othello, so he falls into Iago’s trap, his story thus showing that peer pressure and misguided trust can only lead to a tragedy.
What surprised me most watching this production is that the part of Othello is not as powerful and affecting as in professional productions where the Moor is played by a much older actor. This is nothing to do with acting abilities it is just Shakespeare’s lines given to Othello sound less natural, almost overbearing, when uttered by young and charming Mohammed Mansaray. Still the most beautiful moment of this production belongs to Mansaray and is completely wordless, the breathtaking dance-like love scene between his Othello and Desdemona.
Without a doubt, electrifying stage movement alone, including dance and fight scenes, should be just one reason to see this remarkable production. Although overall it is the excellent ensemble acting that stands out and really elevates this adaptation of Othello which well deserves its West End run at the Ambassadors Theatre. Don’t miss it.
- By William Shakespeare
- Adapted by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly
- Directed by Simon Pittman
- Cast: Mohammed Mansaray, Rebecca Hesketh-Smith, Jamie Rose, Curtis John Kemlo
- The Ambassadors Theatre, London
- Untill 8 December 2017
- Review by Aleksandra Sakowska