Lyric Hammersmith, London – until 11 February 2023
This vibrant, vicious, violent, and vivacious two-hour adaptation by Scott Graham and Simon Hoggett for Frantic Assembly places Othello in a land of gangs, drugs, and booze.
With a versatile set by Laura Hopkins (it shudders around Tom Gill’s Cassio as he drinks too much) and a large dollop of physical movement, the story of the general undone by the jealous poison of his right-hand man, is obviously cut back, but retains its potency.
Othello (Michael Akinsulire) has married Desdemona (Chanel Waddock), but he courts her over a pool table, his bravery and heroism represented by bashing rivals with a baseball bat and refusing to accept a bruised ego.
Their intertwined passion early on is grotesquely mirrored in their final scene together, Desdemona’s fate evoked with almost religious reverence. Graham and Perry Johnson’s movement and choreography are superb throughout this show.
Iago (Joe Layton, a study in duplicity and dishonesty) pours his poison into Othello’s ear at every juncture. He is a man who hides evil behind a self-serving bonhomie: never more clear than in his professed friendship to the lady whose fate he knows is sealed.
The three female characters survive fairly intact – Desdemona is perhaps more confident sexually than she often appears – with Emilia retaining her abused wife loyalty almost to the end. She watches; she waits.
A modern-day setting does little for Bianca, who is the closest to ‘strumpet’ in the script, and still pushed around and mocked by men and women aside.
What works best in this adaptation is the use of corners and nooks to observe, confuse, or influence proceedings and the gut-wrenching ending, which pulls no punches with the bloodletting.
Even in gang land, friendships are built on trust, however misplaced, as Othello hangs on every word of ‘honest’ Iago. Leaders twist quickly, though, and rarely forgive, or their weaknesses become exposed.
Personally, I’d excise Brabantio, Desdemona’s dad, from the narrative, but he’s only in one scene so you can easily forget about him. More interesting is the foolish and lovelorn Rodrigo (Felipe Pacheco), a figure of fun for most of his scenes, ultimately disposable.
I think that even without the knowledge of Shakespeare’s full play (this version largely sticks to what’s left, with a few minor tweaks), you would be able to follow this Othello.
Love is universal, and so are greed, jealousy, anger, and regret. All have their place in this story, which races to its gory conclusion on circumstance and conversation.
With thumping music by Hybrid underlining this dangerous world, this is an exhilarating and exciting Othello.
You can see Othello at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 11 Feb – tickets here.
Image credit: Tristram Kenton