Frantic Assembly have revived their acclaimed production of Othello for a tour and though it lacks the charm of a show by Propeller, say, it certainly goes a long way to make Shakespeare accessible and appealing to a young, contemporary audience.
The setting is the Cyprus pub and its environs. It’s a grubby establishment where you’re just as likely to get a kick in the teeth as a pint of beer. The patrons sport hooded tops and tracksuits and speak with Northern accents. It’s like a blank verse episode of Shameless.
The script has been cut to about half of its usual length, stripping the plot to a minimum and keeping the action tightly focussed. What gets lost is the sense of Othello as a great man. Here he is thug-in-chief, wielding a baseball bat. He might be the hardest man in a milieu of hard men but, when all’s said and done, he’s just king of a shit heap. He hasn’t got far to fall.
Mark Ebuwe is a solid, aggressive Othello but it’s Steven Miller’s Iago who compels, a nasty piece of work. Miller brings out Iago’s cruelly ironic humour. Like Cassius in another play entirely, he has a lean and hungry look. You wouldn’t want to meet him in broad daylight never mind a dark alley. Richard James-Neale brings a touch of light relief as the bumbling Rodrigo, while Ryan Fletcher’s Cassio gives us a striking study in drunk-acting. Leila Crerar’s Emilia rises above the general chavviness for a climactic scene of high emotion and horrific violence – director Scott Graham doesn’t stint on the brawling and savagery. The strangling scene is shocking but almost balletic. Indeed, there is a lot of gracefulness in this sordid, unwholesome world. Scenes are broken up by movement sequences in which the physicality of the actors complements the heightened language of the text. It’s a slick but sometimes uneasy watch, tightly performed by an energetic and committed company.
This treatment ennobles the characters somewhat but what we get is not a sense of inescapable tragedy in which a great man is nobbled by a fatal flaw in his nature but instead we get social commentary: There is no escape from this nasty, dangerous existence and these people don’t even aspire to lift themselves out of the mire. And that’s a tragedy of a different kind.