“Michael Akinsulire’s Othello is a commanding presence.”
We are in a rough suburban pub. It could be London, but more likely a Northern province; the accents give nothing away. But the accentuation of Shakespeare’s words crackles with a dynamic menace that propels us headlong into the ensuing tragedy. Beer bottles and baseball bats are the weapons of choice, a pool table is the battlefield. Frantic Assembly’s fierce retelling drags “Othello”, kicking and screaming, well and truly into the twenty-first century. The jealousy, revenge, paranoia and racism are brought so close to home you can practically smell the beer on the breath; and you’re not sure if you’re about to be kissed or killed.
The opening sequence sets the theme. The electronic duo, Hybrid, provides a throbbing soundtrack that epitomises the tensions. The pecking order is beautifully established in the staccato movement that is both balletic and thuggish. Purists look away – but these moments evocatively replace much of the text that Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have sliced from the original.
Michael Akinsulire’s Othello is a commanding presence. A powerful gang leader but with a gullibility and vulnerability that Akinsulire manages to pull off without it clashing with, or weakening, his power. Chanel Waddock is a fiery and feral Desdemona, genuinely baffled by the injustices of her husband’s accusations. The performances are powerful, yet unafraid to expose the weaknesses inherent in the characters. Weaknesses that are exploited by Joe Layton’s distrustful and fearful Iago. Layton’s unflinching performance sets the standard and throws down the gauntlet for others to match. Which they do. This is a tight-knit gang who move, think, and speak as one body.
The themes of jealousy and revenge in “Othello” are inherently heightened and often difficult to infuse with realism. It works with these characters, that are dangerous and youthful; fuelled by cheap alcohol and seeming social deprivation. Laura Hopkins’ fluid set displays the grimy claustrophobia that funnels the raging emotions. We never escape the pub setting, except when the walls unfold to reveal the back alleys. At other times the walls shift, threatening to envelop the characters as they sink further into the crevasses of their consequences.
Slightly overwhelming, it is nevertheless thrilling. The key moments are highlighted while superfluity is banished. There is a fine balance between the electrifying physicality and the subtle discourse. The tragic finale comes across as a bit rushed, with a body count veering on the comical. The fault lies in the script: as with some of his other plays, the loose ends seem to be tied up with a deadline-defeating desperation. It’s a flaw the writer can surely iron out with experience though! But with a performance as strong as this, Frantic Assembly will undoubtedly help to ensure that Shakespeare’s work achieves the longevity it deserves.
“Above all, this is a comedy showcase with plenty to laugh at”
We start with a few basic rules of dating. But, despite their comic value, not ones that we really want to take on board. The protagonist – a character called ‘The Manny’ – is supposedly enjoying his lifestyle. By day he looks after posh kids and his nights are filled with casual dates. The lack of joy or purpose is unconcealed. Deliberate even. He won’t allow himself to feel anything substantial or lasting. “I’m falling for her – I’m going to get hurt” encapsulates an attitude borne of some deep-seated wound, or fear. The reasons behind this are not explored, which makes Sam McArdle’s job of winning the audience over that much harder.
But he succeeds. McArdle, the actor and writer who has brought this one-hander to the stage, also brings the required self-deprecation, initially, for the audience to root for such a self-destructive character. And more than the required amount of humour, albeit of the darker variety. The obvious comparison is ‘Fleabag’, but there are also definite shades of Nick Hornby’s ‘About A Boy’. “The Manny” is inspired by McArdle’s personal experience of being a male nanny, working for rich single mums in West London. Early drafts were written during lockdown, so it is inevitable that the themes of loneliness and detachment are going to rise to the surface.
Just as he is resigning himself to a life passing by without any real purpose, the Manny meets Molly, a once-hopeful actress who is now just as disillusioned with her life as he is with his. She sells beetroot brownies in Borough market, as opposed to playing Cleopatra on Broadway. The two are drawn to each other. Meanwhile, in his parallel existence, he meets Michael, a precocious seven-year-old Right-Wing child with no father figure. Until the Manny comes along, that is, and they both have lessons in life to deal to each other. Mel Fullbrook’s sharp direction shifts the action between the two scenarios with the seamless precision of a film editor.
The show runs into difficulties, however, when the character of the Manny truly starts to unravel, and the premise of the comedy becomes muddied. As McArdle digs deeper, he exposes fragments of the subtext, but doesn’t pull them up to the surface. It is clear that the Manny has ‘issues’ and although it’s not explicit, the term ‘mental health’ is never far from his lips. And it is not clear whether societal pressure or the increasing use of dating apps is being blamed for the characters’ lack of connection. These people are hurting in some way, and while we can relate to the situations, it’s not easy to relate to the characters. The ‘Manny’ himself comes full circle – which is a touch unsatisfying as it offsets any sense of self-realisation, redemption or of a journey we can empathise with or connect to.
But maybe we aren’t supposed to over analyse. Above all, this is a comedy showcase with plenty to laugh at. McArdle has the art of entertainment off to a tee. With his comic timing and easy demeanour with his audience, he has the expressiveness of a true raconteur; which is a precious gift in itself.