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A CurtainUp London Review
Harking back to the 2001 race riots in West Yorkshire, this Othello explores and exposes the deep-set racism both evinced by the Shakespearean characters and less obviously present in Britain today. The parallel is rich but also unforced, so the audience are free to plumb its depths of interpretation, or not, as they wish. The action is transferred to a grimy pub, dominated by a pool table, surrounded by smoke-polluted wallpaper and featuring a perpetually flashing fruit machine. Called The Cypress, the bar has a longstanding hostility with a rival gang, replacing the original's warring Turks. Designed by Laura Hopkins, panels of this set cleverly open up and revolve to reveal a graffiti-clad wall or a profile slice of a dingy public lavatory.
The young cast tackle Shakespeare's text, heavily cut but otherwise unchanged, with clarity and sincerity, whilst also combining this with athletic movement and balletic skill. The choreography is used as another way of explicating the drama and is exciting, urban, as well as lending an extra edge of rawness to the characters' interaction. For the first half hour or so, movement, dance and music alone set the scene and then the Shakespearean text is let loose with thick Yorkshire accents and forceful incongruity. The swaggeringly confrontational boys perform martial dance as an impressionistic portrayal of bitter violence. This streak reaches its fulfilment only in the final scenes, when the play's bloodshed is gorily embraced.
Complementing the movement, the music created by Hybrid is a perfect reflection of the production's traditional-modern duality, combining epic classicism of deep strings and full orchestras with electronic dance music such as breakbeat.
Although a difficult play to perform, Frantic Assembly's Othello surpasses many more conventional productions, not least in terms of character portrayal. The two main protagonists Othello and Iago enjoy exactly the right balance of power, with one's magnetism set against the other's menace. Jimmy Akingbola's Othello is clearly an alpha male, with rhetoric, charm and an outward-looking nature. Charles Aitken's Iago is a finely-poised foil to this, with his strident negativity and sinister chameleonic machinations. With sympathy and feistiness, Claire-Louise Cordwell and Leila Crerar play Desdemona and Emilia respectively, perhaps with the hint that 21st century women are not quite as meek as the original Shakespearean heroines.
Overall, this is an urgent, visceral production which portrays the sheer devastation of Shakespeare's tragedy in a compelling and contemporary way. Steven Hoggett's precise, bold direction assembles Frantic Assembly's disparate elements and energies to create a very accessible exposition of a tricky text and results in a triumphant adaptation.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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