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Review – Othello – Frantic Assembly at the Playhouse, Liverpool

Frantic Assembly are generally noted not only for their unique performance style but for working with almost exclusively new writing, so it was something of a diversion for them when they chose to present Shakespeare’s 400 year old Othello in 2008. The production however went on to become one of their most celebrated shows, and this current 10 venue tour is its second revival.

From its earlier 110minute straight-through version, Scott Graham and Stephen Hoggett’s adaptation of the play has been finessed and broadened out, now running at 2 hours 20 minutes (including a 20 minute interval). What this seems to allow for is a little more time for some of the textual lyricism to breathe, amidst the powerful physical thrust of the performance.

What Graham and Hoggett are keen to underline is that, whilst this may not feel like the sort of theatrical language that Shakespeare audiences are familiar with, there is not a word spoken that does not come straight from the original text. What has happened here is that some segments have been carefully pruned and moulded, and some dialogue replaced by movement, but it is quite decidedly still true to Shakespeare’s dramatic shape and narrative.

The island of Cyprus is replaced by the Cypress Pub, with most of the action taking place around its pool table. An army and its general become a gang and their leader. Much in the way West Side Story re-imagined Romeo and Juliet, so Frantic Assembly bring new life and energy to a historically remote story by directly translating all its characters and situations to something more contemporary. The piece opens with an extended, almost wordless prologue in which the both the choreography and musical language of the piece are established with an almost ritualistic rhythmic pulse.

Once the verbal storytelling begins, the thread of Shakespeare’s tragedy unfolds entirely faithfully, and even the use of the familiar strawberry-spotted handkerchief as the tool of betrayal blends seamlessly into the decidedly gritty and modern scenario. Whilst the language is Shakespearian, its delivery has a very modern feel to it, aided by the continuous use of strong movement. Many scenes are very cleverly realised with this physicality, but few moreso than the intoxication of Cassio, in which the very walls of the room become fluid and part of the action.

Michael Akinsulire’s performance of the title role, whichever way you look at it, can only be described as muscular. Not only is he a commanding physical presence on stage, but everything about his character is weighty and powerful. Even as he loses control as the plot against him develops, he becomes like a juggernaut with momentum that no brakes can arrest. Joe Layton’s Iago perhaps comes across as more opportunistic than Machiavellian, but he sets about his trail of destruction with ruthless precision. Cassio, destined to become as much collateral damage in the plot against Othello, is given a sinuously cocky treatment by Tom Gill, and Felipe Pachero’s Scouse-accented Roderigo has all the necessary hapless naivety whilst offering an bonus chuckle or two to the Liverpool audience.

There is no getting away from the misogyny of the story, but the trio of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca all nonetheless receive feisty and refreshingly strong-willed readings from Chanel Waddock, Kirsty Stuart and Hannah Sinclair Robinson – there is something about this rough bar-room setting that enables the dynamic between the male and female elements of the narrative to find a new and relatable realism.

Graham directs with drive and precision alongside stunning movement with co-choreographer Perry Johnson, and Laura Hopkins’ ingenious original set has been freshened up, looking amazing under Natasha Chivers’ lighting. The musical soundtrack from Hybrid along with Gareth Fry’s sound design keeps the pulse of the work pounding even when its words take a breath.

Whilst it is not strictly the done thing to review the behaviour of an audience, it is worth noting that, on press night, as is probably the case at many performances, a very large part of the house was filled with coach parties of school students, and this has to have been the most attentive schools audience I have ever sat amongst. It is testament to the mesmeric and engaging quality of Frantic Assembly’s work that it seemed almost impossible for anyone to so much as cough from beginning to end.

Following their week at the Playhouse, the production continues touring further venues throughout England, ending at the Lyric Hammersmith in January-February 2023.

Star rating: 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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