News that a touring production of Othello will usher in this year’s winter programme at the Oxford Playhouse is hardly a bolt out of the blue. Shakespeare’s verses gracing our stage once more is about as predictable as death at the end of a tragedy, while any buzz surrounding this performance’s ‘unique’ selling point – lo and behold, it’s a modern adaptation! – is likely to be the portentous murmur of disgruntled audiences, threatening,Oth “So bloody help me if it’s another all-female cast!”
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Playhouse, or perhaps any other self-respecting UK theatre for that matter, if a slice of Shakespeare weren’t on the menu from time to time. Despite the debates and dissertations about the ethics of adaptation, it appears as if our favourite tragedies and comedies without all that Elizabethan malarkey, are as much part of our staple diet as they are in their original performance conditions. But, in the case of Frantic Assembly’s six-year-old production, is our bellyaching about a surfeit of Shakespeare truly warranted?
Both the qualms about too much Shakespeare and those protesting his disappearance into the mists of 21st century re-workings are shortly to be silenced. Bringing to the fore both adapted and original scripts, Frantic Assembly is a leading physical theatre company whose founding directors and choreographers, Graham and Hoggett, are devoted to a practice that incorporates movement, design, visuals and storytelling, pushing each element to its limit. I first saw Frantic’s Othello when it toured in 2008, and the stubborn purist in me was seduced by this dynamic style of theatre from the word, ‘Tush!’
It would be no great feat to gush about the visual compulsion of the performance, the intensity and brutality of the conflict that unfolds amidst the warmth and vibrancy of a northern English pub, as top-dog Moor (a not so subtle nod to the Moor of Venice) takes on his rivals, the Turks. High-paced bar-room brawls are punctured by moments of balletic tenderness, underscored by streams of electronic dance music and the spinning lights of a slot machine. The production is a hot-blooded feast for the eyes, ears and heart, but what else would you expect when a dance-based company takes on a drama that pulsates as much in verse as in raw emotion?
Those who recoil from the likes of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar will be comforted to learn that Frantic’s Othello has an Iago-like mastery of deception in its manipulation of the original text. Trickery and deception is there in every touch, every shape, every push and pull: seduced by the sheer immaculacy of the piece, enamoured by death and tragedy, against our will brutality becomes beauty. This is an attraction that disturbs our moral compass, and one that Shakespeare knew well to play with. His original wit and insight is still there, and somehow in action speaks louder than words.
Maybe Frantic’s modern adaptation isn’t all it’s predicted to be. Of course, surprises in Shakespeare are somewhat hard to come by, and debates surrounding his theatrical dominance are customarily heated. However, this October’s Othello has the potential to remind us of that blind passion from which ignorance is born.
Frantic Assembly’s Othello will be performed at the Oxford Playhouse from the 21st to the 25th October.