Love London Love Culture spoke to Simon Pittman about his production of Othello now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre as part of The National Youth Theatre’s West End REP season.
Hi Simon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Love London Love Culture. Could you tell me a bit more about your production of Othello?
Well, firstly, you’ll see a company of sixteen amazing young actors from The National Youth Theatre performing a modern adaptation this amazing play that seems as relevant and shocking as it ever was. And we throw a few shapes in the process of telling the story – I think it’s also a good night out! What I love about Othello is it’s a brilliant example of a writer developing a comedy into a tragedy.
This a new production of Frantic Assembly’s adaptation by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett that originally set the play in a Yorkshire pub in 2001 against the backdrop of riots and growing racial tension. But I knew it couldn’t and shouldn’t be a remounting of the original. We’ve kept the microcosm of the pub at the heart of the local estate as our production’s context, but this is a more diverse, youthful world where aspiration and bravado clash with inequality and seething frustrations.
How do you think the story can still relate to audiences in 2017?
I think the questions the play raises about how difficult it is to integrate disparate people and their personal and cultural narratives hold just as vivid a resonance as ever for a contemporary audience. We’ve shifted the context of the Venetian military to the fractious racial and social politics of a contemporary working-class pub – staging the domestic story within a violent world. Our Othello is as much a piece about modern Britain and social inequality as it is the tale of ‘the war-like moor Othello’. Today, our Othello is about urban tension in all its guises. But beyond all of that who doesn’t enjoy good old universal story about paranoia, love and jealousy?
It is such a well-known story and play – was it difficult to put your own take on it?
The important thing with any play you chose to direct is to know why you need to do it, and what it allows you to say and ask about the world today. That’s where a concept comes from. I think Frantic Assembly’s adaptation of Othello, and this production of it is more about utilising Shakespeare’s play to tell the contemporary story we want to tell about certain communities in Britain today, rather than using a contemporary concept to tell the classical story of Othello.
What do you think audiences take away from the production?
That all depends on the individual and how this story speaks to them but I want them to go away questioning the world we are presenting in this production. We’ve tried not to shy away from portraying a world and social milieu that is still wrestling with ingrained racism and misogyny – I think Emilia’s speech to Desdemona about women and society is one of the most brilliant in all of Shakespeare’s plays.
I also hope audiences come away inspired by Shakespeare and wanting to see more, or that they experience the play in a fresh light. Most importantly, that young audience members come away inspired to get more involved in making, seeing and supporting the arts by the other young people they are watching on stage. It’s more important than ever that that message gets out there – in schools and communities – and that the next generation take ownership of and value the arts – bringing their voices to it.
What have you enjoyed the most about directing Othello?
Seeing the company gradually transform into their characters and really believing in and owning the world those characters live in. It’s also been great to come back to this amazing adaptation and bring a new take on it – we’ve been able to experiment with the design and the choreography in really exciting ways, creating a set and physical language that bends and shifts with the experiences of the characters through the play. Most of all, I’ve enjoyed witnessing a new generation of young theatregoers be inspired by their contemporaries, getting excited about Shakespeare. It’s something quite special that the National Youth Theatre is able to achieve in that sense.
Are there any other Shakespeare plays you would like to direct in the future?
I’d like to do Macbeth. I think it has great resonance at the moment, plus it’s just a brilliantly atmospheric, action-packed thriller. The way Shakespeare explores the psychology of ambition and guilt is brilliant. I also think the depiction of the pursuit of power seem extremely potent and resonant at the moment. I think there’s a great modern, pacy adapted version of that play to create – atmospheric, visceral and cinematic.
How have you found working with the National Youth Theatre (NYT)?
It’s been a pleasure to work with the REP Company and the NYT because it’s not just a directing job, it’s about helping to nurture and train our next generation of actors and creatives. The experience has been an incredibly rewarding, constantly surprising collaborative process with the company. Their passion and energy is a gift.
If you had to sum up Othello for those who are unfamiliar with the play – how would you describe it?
Well our version is a domestic love story set in the context of a young, violent world fuelled by sex and alcohol. A place where dead and age are how you earn your stripes. In walks honest and honour-bound outsider who quickly builds a reputation as a leader and defends the turf. Then a jealous, paranoid, next-level liar who feels ignored and unappreciated sets about trying to win his rightful place… and things start to go wrong! Another answer is it’s a play about storytellers and their gullible listeners.
Othello continues to play as part of the The National Youth Theatre’s West End REP season at the Ambassadors Theatre until the 8th December.