Wearin’ its ‘eart on t’sleeve

desdemona and Othello

Kirsty Oswald  as Desdemona and Mark Ebulue  as Othello in Frantic Assembly's version of Shakespeare's Othello. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Shakespeare’s Othello

Birmingham Rep

****

DELIVERING the works of Shakespeare in a contemporary setting is nothing new to modern audiences and so it becomes a bit of a challenge for any production like Frantic Assembly's Othello to avoid resorting to the usual gimmicks and devices.

Set in a convincingly grimy Yorkshire pub, this version of Othello pulls no punches either in content or in its faithfulness to the original text.

Apart from an occasional "All right lads?" thrown in for comic effect, the 'Thou's' and 'thee's are very much in place and director Scott Graham has managed to transplant and merge these dimensions without sacrificing cohesion or relevance.

Slick, narrative choreographic sequences drive some of the more powerful moments of the evening and the cast are as impressive here as they are with the verbal challenges that Shakespeare with a Yorkshire accent presents.

Each character is cleverly profiled in an introductory 'dance' scene. A dirtier West Side Story comes to mind, but any comparison is quickly chased awaiagoy by the less than subtle innuendo and general debauchery on display. Violent from the start but hardly gratuitous, the action and plot pull us along at a rapid pace without ever feeling rushed.

Surrounded by 'Chavs' and 'Townies', Othello here is different. While his mates wear track suits and drag Shakespeare into the depths of linguistic depravity, Othello is more well-spoken and presented.

Steven Miller cuts a sinister figure as the cunning Iago

Mark Ebulue, a former kick-boxer, cuts an impressive physical form as Othello but comes across more of a fool and pushover than a man being eaten away by paranoia, jealousy and rage.

We miss the escalation of his demons as they consume him. The climactic murder scenes potency is rescued by the ingenious choreographic decision to have Desdemona die at Othello's hands while suspended above him as he lies on his back. As she dies, he slowly lowers her body onto his. As her life fades we see the horror and remorse fill him. This is Ebulue's and Scott Graham's finest moment.

Leading the way for much of the action is Steven Miller's serpent-like portrayal of Iago, Othello's right hand man. Dangerous, cunning, Machiavellian to the extreme, Miller is riveting throughout and his performance nightmare inducing. I took much pleasure in watching him while not involved in the principal action, snaking around the set, adding sinister titbits of detail here and there.

Laura Hopkins' set design seems simple enough at the start before taking on a life of its own. The walls of the pub twist and transform to great effect, particularly in a drunken scene involving Cassio, played by Ryan Fletcher.

As Othello resolves to kill Desdemona, the walls close in around him and then release again after her death. The set became so actively involved that by the end I felt as if it were a character unto itself.

On this night the audience was filled with teenage students who sat enthralled through the 1 hr 40 minutes, standing for an excited ovation at the conclusion. Overhearing some of their positive comments afterwards it's clear that Frantic Assembly has been successful in striking a chord with younger audiences.

Perhaps it's a sign of my own age that I found the music being played before the start a touch too loud. The kids didn't seem to mind! A great introduction to Shakespeare for the young and more than a worthwhile experience for those with a greater knowledge of the play. To 15-11-14.

Dominic Antonucci

12-11-14 

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