Please note: This review – like the production itself – contains a reference to self-harm. Please take care when reading and click off this article if this subject is triggering to you.
It’s a certain kind of tragedy when the thing for which Frantic Assembly is known is the most distracting and disorientating element of the physical theatre group’s latest production. If 2020’s I Think We Are Alone was undermined by its lack of choreography, then Frantic’s Othello is clouded by its movement to the extent that the Shakespeare drama has little time to ground itself.
There’s nothing symbolic or smart about its staging in a bar, either – not even snooker cues are used as an alternative to swords, on a basic level. Instead, a pool table is often the platform for characters to jump onto and off again, a slot machine is fairly unremarkable in the corner, and the pub walls bend and curve in an almost slinky-like fashion – for seemingly no reason whatsoever. There’s little to director Scott Graham’s vision which justifies this renewed take on the bard’s sinister romantic conflict.
From the outset, we have probably around five minutes before any dialogue is introduced, as impressive and tight dance sequences depicting drunken altercations and celebrations are performed to punchy electronic music instead. From that, we’re supposed to clock Othello (Michael Akinsulire) and Desdemona’s (Chanel Waddock) interest in one another, and some of the conflicts in place between other characters. It’s fast-paced abstraction, and when we finally get some dialogue, it’s slow, dry and devoid of action or any music to maintain a pace, or establish a significant connection with the characters. If I wasn’t zoning out from scenes which failed to make an impact, then I was left with this feeling of something being missing, like a lack of certain conviction from key roles.
Akinsulire’s progression from a self-assured and rigid Othello to one of frenzied uncertainty is commendable and a strong performance, but Joe Layton’s Iago is far more cunning than he is contemptuous. Despite clearly stating he hates the play’s protagonist at one point, it comes across as more of a dislike than anything vitriolic or truly aggressive. When all the violence comes around in the second act – a final half which flows a fair bit better with a greater focus on the dialogue – Cassio (Tom Grill) can be seen placing his hands on his heads, open-mouthed, in a reaction which feels disingenuous. While the choreography certainly lands (in a literal sense, mostly, but the same routine between Othello and Desdemona taking on different meanings when it’s love and when it’s hate is very clever), all the emotion which comes with a tale of manipulation and false accusations doesn’t – not quite.
By the simple fact Laura Hopkins’ staging is in a standard pub, there’s already an unspoken grit and tension applied to the events unfolding, before bottles are smashed and baseball bats are swung. Granted, an emotional response is elicited by the time of Othello’s eventual demise, but not the one you’d expect, as audience members groan with sadness at the protagonist’s self-harm. In its final scenes as Othello rests with deceased Desdemona on the pool table, it frames itself as a bloodier Romeo and Juliet – where we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Othello’s confusion – rather than the depraved, patriarchal and toxic tale whereby the main character is just as guilty as Iago of appalling evil.
Whether that’s a sensible tone to strike (while faithful to the source material), is of course open to interpretation, but even so, when there’s more of a focus on Iago here and the choreography, the extremities of the play’s conclusion aren’t fully impactful when we hear so little from the protagonist. While the scenes involving movement are intense but abstract, the dialogue is clear but reserved, offering little tonal consistency for us to feel entertained by the action, or connected to the characters. And from the brilliant Curious Incident choreographers, this is perhaps the saddest part of the whole production.
Othello is now playing at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 11 February.
A British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance is scheduled for 1 February, while its captioned and audio described versions will both take place on 4 February.
Production Images: Tristram Kenton.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Othello’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and while I know co-choreographer Perry Johnson in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.