Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 8 December 2017
Last year at the Globe Theatre, the production of Imogen (a more accurate rebranding of Cymbeline) was set within the world of London’s street gangs. That particular production proved that even plays set in a mythical British past could be set not just in the present, but in the recognisible world of inner-city life. With perhaps a nod to this, the National Youth Theatre’s current production of Othello (which is directed by Simon Pittman, associate director of Frantic Assembly) is set in a community pool hall.
Asides from the contemporary setting, the one thing that sets the NYT production apart from others is the sheer energy that all the performers exhibit. While allusions to West Side Story may sound widely incongruous, when one bears in mind the extensive use of choreography for fighting between two factions in this Shakespearean adaptation, it’s not such a strange comparison.
While not everyone in the show exhibits a natural flair for the Bard’s iambic pentameter, those that do (such as Jamie Rose as Iago and Rebecca Hesketh-Smith as Desdemona) remind us of why this tragedy has such a prominent role in Shakespeare’s canon.
Where the production comes into its own is the use of its surroundings to give another layer of meaning to the text. Othello (Mohammed Mansaray) holding a white pool ball in close proximity to its black counterpart reminds the audience of their respective roles in the game and how Othello sees himself in relationship to Desdemona – an object within her sphere of influence, reacting to whatever she does. As for Rose’s Iago, at one point he wears a Nike T-shirt that has its famous catchphrase “Just Do It”, which could be said to be his mantra – or at least what he subliminally coaxing Roderigio and Othello to do in their respective ‘tasks’.
However, the secret weapon in this play’s arsenal is the set. Dark and fairly non-descriptive with three ‘supporting columns’ and a visible ceiling, the set moves in certain scenes that have an emotional or narrative significance. At first the columns that bend and wobble when Cassio is drunk seem like an amusing, inspired touch. But later, when the ceiling and room closes up during Desdemona’s final scene says so much about Othello’s mental health, where jealousy has warped his perception and rationality has been squeezed from his troubled mind.
At present, the National Youth Theatre is also hosting an updated production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Ambassador Theatre, drawing out themes relevant to the 21st century. It would be interested to see the NYT tackling Othello in the near future, in a similar fashion that plays to its strengths.