Venice and Cyprus are collapsed into the space of a grimy pub in the north of England. The men wear tracksuits and wield rounders bats, and the women have sweatpants, scraped back hair and lower back tattoos. International conflict is now gang violence, and the pub’s pool table is a focal point from start to violent end.
The modernisation of this Othello, though ingenious and extensive, is far from being its only innovative feature. As you’d expect from a Frantic Assembly production, the physical theatre and dance are stunning. They give a brutal beauty to the fights and skirmishes, and convey an erotically charged tenderness upon the chemistry between the play’s central couple, Othello and Desdemona. The emphasis on physicality also makes the intrusive presence in the relationship of “honest Iago” a palpable and tangible one, that runs through the play as deeply as the twists and turns of his schemes and plots.
This physicality comes at a cost which for some will be inexcusable: the play is cut extensively, and not just cut, but intercut, with the beautifully choreographed chaos of the physical vignettes, and with relentlessly pounding electronic music. Rather than laying the charge of bardic butchery at this production’s door, instead note that as well as the big, famous quotations still occuring when we’d expect them to, they have a renewed vigour and impact. The words that remain hit us harder precisely because the play’s text has been stripped back to the bare bones of its dialogue.
Likewise the show is open to accusations of having debased the love of Othello and Desdemona, their relationship introduced not as a glamorous elopement, but rather as a quickie in the ladies’ loos. I see the show as having embraced wholeheartedly its concept in a way many productions would be wary of doing. It challenges its audience’s prejudices concerning the characters it presents and whether such individuals are fit to speak the words of Shakespeare.
Desdemona, in this production, belongs to a strata of society commonly associated with sexual impropriety and promiscuousness regardless of their actual behaviour. Audience members who hold these prejudices must, with Othello, must come to terms with the stark fact of Desdemona’s fidelity, in the face of what her appearance, womanhood, and innocent friendliness, had led them to suspect, or to believe.
The decision to place Shakespeare’s work in this setting so firmly and with such dedication may be seen by some as a confrontational gesture, but it foregrounds a conflict in theatre between naturalism and elitism that needs to be examined. A desire to keep the words of Shakespeare in the mouths of the powerful reflects an elitist bias in our theatres, and to pretend that people who are poor in wealth are somehow also deficient in emotional intensity, whether of love or of jealousy.
The set is realistic, but deceptively so, as the walls can shift and warp, swaying woozily with Cassio’s drunkenness, and closing in on Othello and Desdemona for the play’s climactic scenes. The extensive use of the pub creates a feeling of claustrophobia that adds a tension to the tragedy that is often found lacking in other productions. Othello is always so near to discovering Iago’s plots, and yet somehow, horrifyingly, Iago always eludes him. The brief time scale of the play acquires new intensity and believability when the characters are confined to one location, in such close proximity with one another.
This Othello doesn’t replicate verbatim the text with which we are familiar; it does something far more impressive. It captures the vital and visceral core of Shakespeare’s play, and transforms it into a compelling, and compellingly modern, spectacle. Even if you’re normally sceptical about contemporary adaptations of classics, go and see this play. It might just change your mind.