Frantic Assembly’s production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” is a modern adaptation of the classic tragedy that offers a fresh and insightful interpretation of the play. This version of the play, which was first staged in 2008, is a powerful commentary on race, gender, and social inequality that brings Shakespeare’s themes into the modern age.
One of the most striking aspects of this adaptation is the way it addresses the issue of race. Frantic Assembly’s production is keenly aware of the racialized language and stereotypes that pervade the original text. The play’s repeated references to Othello as “the Moor” and the underlying racial judgments implicit in many of the characters’ statements are highlighted in this adaptation. By setting the action in a contemporary pub and portraying the war for control of Cyprus as inter-gang brawling, the play serves as a harrowing reminder of how easily the remarks against Othello translate to modern views.
Despite being an abridged version of the original five-act play, this adaptation remains true to the core relationships and conflicts that drive the plot. The play’s focus is primarily on the relationships between Othello and his men, who are now portrayed as a group of rowdy lads in their local pub. The three women featured in the play are also reimagined as equally boisterous and dressed more for the gym than any formal affair. While some Shakespeare aficionados may miss the complete text and long for the political struggles, the brevity and more insular focus largely serve the piece well.
Michael Akinsulire delivers a dynamic performance in the title role of Othello, but the real standout is Joe Layton’s portrayal of the cunning, manipulative right-hand man Iago. Layton’s Iago is equal parts sadistic villain and likeable lad from your local. His villainy unfolds before our eyes, but it is easy to see why the others hold him in such high regard. Other standouts in this universally strong cast include Felipe Pacheco and Chanel Waddock as a lovelorn, butt-of-the-joke Roderigo and a chavette-with-a-heart-of-gold Desdemona respectively.
The actors’ cadence and bold character choices make the language accessible to viewers less familiar with Elizabethan English. Director Scott Graham, along with co-adapter Steven Hoggett, has made this production accessible for a wider audience by incorporating choreography co-created by Perry Johnson. The performance has sections of the story told purely through movement, which is particularly effective when setting the initial scene of the characters gathering around a pool table and in a delicate, explorative love scene between Othello and Desdemona.
The sound design by Gareth Fry and Rob Parkinson allows the play to seamlessly transition from a scene where friends talk in a quiet pub to narrative dance performance and back again. The lighting designed originally by Natasha Chivers, later aided by Andy Purves, helps to quickly and easily alter the tone of a scene, particularly in the moments where the pub walls move away to introduce a new setting.
Laura Hopkins’ set design is an important character in and of itself. The back wall can be warped and reshaped to aid a feeling of disorientation, or it can simply move apart to create an alleyway where darker parts of the plot unfold. There is beauty and elegance in the simplicity of the pub itself, with a pool table and a sofa that can be moved off stage as needed, and a color scheme that invokes the kind of immediately inviting place where many of us have spent an evening among friends. Interestingly, Hopkins and Chivera/Purves’ work combines best in a small bathroom set, which is harshly lit, impractically sized, and perhaps the most authentic element of the setting.
Frantic Assembly’s adaptation may not be the complete five-act play, but the brevity and more insular focus serve the piece well. Some elements of the original play, such as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, are scarcely seen or mentioned, which may be confusing for purists. However, the themes of jealousy, betrayal, and manipulation are still startlingly relevant in today’s society, and Frantic Assembly’s Othello is a powerful reminder of this.
In conclusion, Frantic Assembly’s Othello is a well-crafted and relevant production that effectively adapts Shakespeare’s play for a modern audience. With strong performances, engaging choreography, and clever design choices, it is an excellent example of how classic plays can be updated and made accessible without losing their impact.