Othello at Lyric Hammersmith review: a powerful study in male brutality

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

This dynamic but coarse-grained production from Frantic Assembly relocates Shakespeare’s play to a spectacularly grim working-class pub. The text is pared back and augmented with interludes of muscular choreography – the company’s trademark – set to a thumping cinematic soundtrack by Hybrid.

Scott Graham’s production has a great sense of urgency and threat, some fine performances and a potent sexual tension between the leads. Michael Akinsulire’s Othello – quietly powerful at first, but barking his later lines – is built like a flint rockface. Chanel Waddock’s besotted Desdemona clearly thinks he’s worth the climb. She’s got an estuary accent full of glottal stops while her father seems to be Welsh. Hearing a variety of non-posh voices speaking the verse is refreshing.

Graham presents a pretty crass rendering of a working class milieu, though, the men in grubby tracksuits and remand-home haircuts, the women in cycling shorts and Croydon facelift topknots. The physical language is based on chest-bumping aggro and pelvic grinding. It’s a world of pool-table fights and hurried bunk-ups in the Gents, with not much in between.

The social and military hierarchy of Shakespeare’s text has been removed, and with it the sense that Othello is isolated because of his black skin. Here, brandishing a baseball bat to defeat unspecified marauders in the pub car park, he is very much the alpha dog of the scrofulous, saloon-bar crew.

When he or others mention his race at moments of high tension it feels like a throwback to something primal and atavistic, unanchored to the characters’ everyday reality. The scene where Othello has a seizure is also excised. Instead, the walls of Laura Hopkins’s set flex and dilate to indicate his infuriated mental imbalance, or the drunkenness of Tom Gill’s Cassio.

 (Tristram Kenton)
(Tristram Kenton)

The story still works as a study of jealousy, with Joe Layton’s lairy, loose-limbed Iago recklessly deciding to destroy his more handsome and charismatic friend. Amid the general fug of adrenaline and hormones, it’s slightly more credible than usual that Othello might fall for Iago’s lies. Gill is great as the bewildered lieutenant caught in the middle, never quite as smart or as sober as he thinks he is.

A byproduct of the edits that Scott Graham and writer Steven Hoggett have made to the text is that Iago’s wife Emilia (Kirsty Stuart) and Cassio’s lover Bianca (Hannah Sinclair Robinson) are pushed even further into the background. The play becomes a powerful study in male brutality, stripped of many other layers of meaning. Never more so than in the last scene, which is as vicious and shocking as anything I’ve seen on stage recently.

This adaptation was first staged at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2008 and arrives at the Lyric now as a co-production between Frantic and the Curve Theatre in Leicester. I’ve not seen it before but presume it’s little-changed since its original iteration. Certainly, the choreography recalls some of the early Frantic Assembly shows I saw back in the late 90s and early 2000s. I’m glad the company is still around to blast physicality into text, but I’m not sure they’ve moved on much.

Lyric Hammersmith, to 11 Feb;