Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Scott Graham
‘On horror’s head horrors accumulate’ is the mantra for Lyric Hammersmith’s scintillating new production of Frantic Assembly’s Othello which takes shears to the text to produce a rippling two-hour adaptation and replaces the missing dialogue with arrestingly choreographed movement sequences that encapsulate the violent brio of this play set to a thrumming dance soundtrack. And in Scott Graham’s production, the innovations keep on coming, using setting, characterisation and tone to create one of the most dangerously thrilling Othellos of recent years.
The plot is unchanged, but the location is re-conceived in an urban gang who meet in their local dive bar where they can play pool and brandish cues at one another – along with baseball bats and eventually a Stanley knife – as Iago’s dastardly plot to come between Othello and his wife Desdemona tears through the sworn loyalties and brutal brotherhood displayed by this group. This is a man’s world and woe betide the women who get in the way.
Laura Hopkins’s stage design and costumes of tracksuits and sportswear consume the plot, eating up Shakespeare’s words as though they had been written entirely for this set of characters in this moment. This is a deeply masculine experience, the muscularity of the writer’s language and structure pouring into the bravado and bristling violence that underpins every moment of this adaptation. Othello’s crew fight together, are rowdy in celebration, but equally able to turn that desire, that need to harm, against one another, and it becomes shamelessly easy for Iago to pull the right strings.
Graham and co-choreographer Perry Johnson’s movement sequences are extraordinary; a stylised, energetic shorthand that help to truncate vast swathes of the play, making short but interesting work of the youthful verve and connections among Othello’s gang. They also reflect the intensely fought battle and turf war they win early on as well as some of the key plot points, including the stealing and planting of the vital handkerchief which becomes almost fetishised in this production, held at length by several characters, its significance and journey starkly emphasised.
That all this takes place in Hopkins’ folding and extending set creates endless fluidity as the bar develops new corners in which Iago can lurk or pockets where he observes his handiwork. At times this rubberised set looms backwards as revelations spins Othello’s word, while it neatly folds over to reveal a dark alleyway where foul deeds are done. That the lead restores the set piece-by-piece during his ‘It is the cause’ speech is genuinely revelatory, a character physically and emotionally setting the scene for his great crime to come.
Yet, this is almost entirely Iago’s play. Joe Layton is an incredibly charismatic, almost magnetic, villain and the audience all but wills him to succeed until the bloody consequences of his actions are revealed. Layton has a mercurial quality that is incredibly engaging, watchful and involved in every moment of this story, ensuring his plan remains on track, manipulating and charming as required. But the brilliance of this performance lies in the tiny details, the smirk of triumph as his poison hits the spot, the loathing with which he regards Othello and the humble sweetness he presents to Desdemona, all building powerfully to Iago bloodying his own hands at last.
Michael Akinsulire is a strong, silent Othello, a role that grows in stature as the play unfolds, particularly in the passion-fuelled second half where he shimmers with rage. There is a wonderful tenderness in the movement piece devised for the lovers in the first half mirrored in placement and style by the dramatic death scene that shows the total inversion of this marriage. The female characters, including Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona, get far less of a look in and they sit slightly on the outside of this adaptation, but this menacing Othello will leave you slightly breathless as the horrors accumulate.
Runs until 11 February 2023