Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Othello, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Othello, Lyric Hammersmith

Written for Culture Wars, 12.11.2008

In relocating Othello to the blood-red dinge of a run-down Northern pub, Frantic Assembly have transformed it from personal to social tragedy. Here, culpability for the final body-strewn pool table lies not with the individual whims of Iago, but rather the culture of respect in which he is immersed. All is aggression and “reputation, reputation, reputation” in an intelligent and thrilling indictment of machismo malignity.

While, in whittling the play into a brisk two hours, directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett can only nod towards the gradual process of its deception, there is plenty of interpretation to be found in visual details. In The Cypress pub, under the luminescent flicker of a slot machine, men transform into beasts as drink “steals away their brains”. They take pool cues and bottles as swords and daggers, swaggering and aggravating in a battlefield of leisure.

In fact, it is surprising how well the location befits the text. Race remains a constant presence without being bludgeoned into place and the local gang preserves the hierarchy and responsive violence of Shakespeare’s military setting. If anything there is added brutality, without pillows and noble swordsmanship to soften the blows.

What it loses is a sense of tragic downfall, as Jimmy Akingbola’s Othello is only great when viewed from within the culture under attack. He is a picture of hostile masculinity elevated from a pack of dopey shellsuited henchmen, too easily coaxed into irrational suspicion. That Charles Aitken’s Iago is a teenager out of his depth and, increasingly, out of control, points the finger of blame back on Othello himself and the respect he demands. He seems to play at the only adulthood he sees reflected around him.

Amidst the broad, bold adaptation are some deftly subtle touches. Brown ale is spat across the stage, while bottles of WKD are readily ingested. In a nod to his “motiveless malignity”, Iago wears a Nike T-shirt emblazoned with the logo: ‘Just Do It’. Aurally, however, Frantic Assembly miss the target – much of the dialogue flattens to a grating monotone, delivered with the push of aggressive syllables and generic Northern dialects – and just occasionally the dance becomes overly smooth and polished, softening its vicious gall.

However, this is bare-knuckle Shakespeare that you can’t afford to take your eyes off for a second.

Photograph: Frantic Assembly

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