The Frantic Assembly production doing the rounds at the moment calling itself Shakespeare’s Othello (coming to the Lyric Hammersmith for a decent run in the New Year) is not Shakespeare’s Othello. It is not an update, in the usual sense either. It is an adaptation so there is quite a bit of chopping out of the text and leaving out secondary situations and subtext. It is a riff on the original trying based on the idea that today the themes of racism, jealousy, betrayal, paranoia, sex, and murder are still relevant, but entirely updating the action to 2022.
The volatility of the characters, their motives, and their reactions, are conveyed by the sheer physicality of the approach. I attended a performance in Oxford with a theatre full of school students who are studying the actual, full Shakespeare play and who, when I spoke to several at the interval, were having a very good time. I had a very good time. The funky music was excellent; the choreography and movement were exciting; the company performed with real verve and commitment. The kids got all that. But for me and the approach was, ultimately, flawed. They agreed that this was not Shakespeare’s play, exactly; this was an adaptation with a special viewpoint. One young woman said she felt they were trying to do a kind of West Side Story approach. The problem is that West Side Story recognizably adapted and adopted the plot of Romeo and Juliet but all the lines and songs were new.
The mistake for me and for those students was that this Othello takes place in a pool hall setting in modern times, and everyone speaks with regional accents; but all the lines are by Shakespeare from the actual play, only with lots of bits missing or rearranged. The whole martial and heroic aspect of the original is gone because here we are dealing with youthful street gangs and that is just not a good equivalent in modern times when relying on bits of the original text. Another young lady suggested that perhaps it would have made more sense to set the play in Afghanistan or Ukraine to restore the martial heroism to Othello and the others. Because of the updated setting, the whole problem of the racism and class structures in the original play, especially that of the father of Desdemona, simply doesn’t have the impact of the original. If you go to a performance expecting Shakespeare’s Othello, you will be disappointed. If you go expecting a kind of “riff” on the original, with a lot of fine invention and innovation of staging, you will be highly entertained and also, probably, compelled to think back to the original source.
The cast is excellent and appealing. Michael Akinsulire makes an Othello who dominates the scenes well, and the best parts of the play include any moments that are simply personal ones straight from the play itself. The scene where Joe Layton, as Iago, works Othello into the suspicions and then the full-blown disease of jealousy, is just fine. I liked Tom Gill’s Cassio, found him plausibly appealing, and thought that Kirsty Stuart did a fine job with the sometimes thankless role of Emilia. Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona works in context but is not much like the feisty, morally upright, and clear-visioned original. I liked the music by Hybrid. Director Scott Graham makes this adaptation work on its own terms. But I also think that you have to go into this much-praised production knowing what those terms are.