Review: Othello

There are a lot of factors, of course, but I think one of the reasons that West Side Story worked, and continues to work so well is because gangs are one of the last areas in contemporary life where audiences will readily accept that murderous violence can spring up at the drop of a hat. Frantic Assembly’s Othello, running at the Lyric Hammersmith, adopts this setting, and the feel does remind one of West Side Story, but it manages to achieve its startlingly contemporary feel with Shakespeare’s original language. 

Said language is, admittedly, in a shortened form– 100 minutes with no interval, though the scenes were adapted masterfully and nothing essential felt lost– and delivered in heavy Northern accents that had the London A-levels students sitting around us giggling for about the first quarter of the play. Boys and girls alike have track pants and trainers, the ladies in crop tops and the boys in hoodies. They smoke and drink and play the slots machine in the corner, the ‘Turkish fleet’ consists of unseen honking cars and a brick thrown through a bar window, and lieutenancy is conferred by passing along custody of a baseball bat. Scenes are supplemented with long, silent sequences of dynamic, hip-hop inflected dance that tells the story as clearly as any of the dialogue. 

Othello’s (Mark Ebulue) difference is marked in many ways besides his race: he’s more obviously muscular than other men, southern-accented, and calm and steady in contrast to the impulsive exuberance of the others– which makes the change that Steven Miller’s temperamental Iago is able to work in him so sinister. This is not an Iago who is able to think ten steps ahead– we see him working it all out in the moment, sometimes almost a beat too slowly (as when Roderigo threatens to expose him)– and the excitement and tension of watching this process is at least as compelling as more composed Iagos playing ringmaster. 

Kirsty Oswald’s Desdemona is perhaps my favorite I’ve ever seen: spirited and defiant not just to her father, but throughout. She does not cry for the entirety of the final two acts, as so many Desdemonas unfortunately do, but teases, flirts, and fights for her life. She’s no chaste angel, but it is equally clear that she would never betray the man she loves. One of the most interesting examples of director Scott Graham’s adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes and entrances to allow Desdemona and Othello to have an early scene alone. I’d never before realized that they are, in the original text, never left by themselves before he kills her. Here, they are allowed a moment of intimacy and private tenderness that grounds their love in more than just public protestations. Desdemona’s friendship with Emilia (Leila Crerar) is one of equals, and the latter’s desperate loyalty comes from a form of friendly love that is much more recognizable to a modern audience than the mistress/servant relationship. After shrinking from Iago’s cruelty and allowing herself to be casually groped by most of the others, Emilia blazes to life in the final third of the play, and when she finally seizes the right to speak for herself, she is fearless and formidable. 

The set (design by Laura Hopkins) moves seamlessly from very dingy bar to back alley, but even when safely indoors the walls will undulate to underscore the characters’ uncertainty and distress– as Cassio (a charming Ryan Fletcher) is getting wasted, for example, or Iago is panicking about how to plant the handkerchief on him. Though the excellent dance/movement sequences peter off towards the end of the play, the final moments of violence are viscerally shocking in a way that such well-trodden tragedies often cannot quite manage. I was most aware, during the final moments, of how young everybody seemed to be– and that unlike the glooming peace that ends many versions of Othello, the cycle of violence here has no end in sight. 

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