A physical-theater take on Shakespeare’s tragedy of jealousy and racial tension set in contemporary Northern England is in principle a gutsy idea, but overall Frantic Assembly’s production is surprisingly cautious. Part of the problem may be over-reverence: Frantic made its name as one of the U.K.’s most innovative and youth-pleasing legit troupes by combining high-octane movement and electronic music with new texts by living authors — but “Othello” is their first take on the Bard. Shakespeare’s play feels like a hindrance to the story the company wants to tell and constrains their usually intoxicating physical presence.
Prod is set in the Cypress pub (the groan-worthy refiguring of the original play’s Cyprus setting) in a working class housing project in Leeds. Othello (Jimmy Akingbola) is the bouncer and de-facto general of a gang of white thugs in an ongoing conflict with the rival “Turks” gang, the company’s obscure reference (explained in program notes) to recent real-life white vs. Asian (Indian subcontinent) tensions.
But because we never meet the Turks, save in a few brief blasts of physical staging featuring company members hidden in hoodies, the complex socio-racial backdrop never feels material or consequential to the action.
What is instead prioritized is Shakespeare’s text, presented in a pared-down and slightly updated version. The trigger for the play’s driving action is Othello’s marriage to Desdemona (Claire-Louise Cordwell), which kicks Iago (Charles Aitken) into a frenzy of race-hatred and jealous plotting.
While racism is of course a real problem, the removal of the professional/military rivalry among the male characters keeps the conflict overall from being fully compelling. The subtextual social discord feels like the play the company wants to be performing, but Shakespeare keeps getting in the way.
That being said, the cast by and large handle the verse intelligently, and it’s engaging to hear it delivered in strong regional accents (think Billy Elliott speaking pentameter). Richard James-Neale’s Rodrigo and Leila Crerar’s Emilia, in particular, sew the language and some very contemporary intonations and physicality together skillfully.
Cordwell is beautifully cast and decked out as Desdemona: With her scraped-back hair and rock-hard abs peeking out under a belly-top hoodie, she looks every inch the working class tough girl, giving a fully committed, affecting performance.
Pumped up and sporting a scary mohawk, Akingbola is equally physically effective in the title role, and is a convincing Shakespearian actor.
Surprisingly, show features relatively little of the innovative choreography with which Frantic made its name. Those moments when movement is interspersed with speech, as when Iago performs a monologue while walking around and through an intimate scene between Othello and Desdemona, add depth and interest to the storylines. But the infrequent movement breaks never really soar.
Frantic’s reputation for innovative, top-drawer design is maintained here: Laura Hopkins’ bendy marvel of a set is first a realistic-looking pub, but the walls collapse and expand backward when characters bump into them, giving a compelling impression of a world out of balance. Natasha Chivers’ powerful lighting creates distinctive onstage areas: Wide, smoke-filled beams overhead give an unsettling impression of constant surveillance while the pub interior is washed in sickly yellow.
Prod has been touring England since mid-September; its London run at the Lyric Hammersmith is all but sold out, and a student-dominated audience was held rapt throughout the performance reviewed. Exciting new auds about Shakespeare is always an admirable enterprise; it’s just disappointing that Frantic Assembly seems to have lost some of its distinctive voice in the process.