“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.
“It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers”
So where exactly did the stereotype originate? The Blonde Stereotype that is. Negative (‘dumb blonde’) or otherwise (‘blonde bombshell’), the perception of blonde-haired women has ignored the lack of evidence that suggests that blondes are less intelligent than other people. The first recorded ‘dumb blonde’ appeared in a French play in 1775; “Les Curiosités de la Foire’. She was dumb in the literal sense in that she didn’t talk much. Since then, blondes have had more fun, gentlemen have preferred them, and Hitchcock has fetishized them.
In 2001, writer Amanda Brown wrote about her experience as a blonde at Stanford Law School in various letters to friends which later became a novel and the box office success that was “Legally Blonde”. The musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, opened on Broadway in 2007 to mixed reviews. It’s West End run, starring Sheridan Smith, won three Olivier Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Smith.
The temptation is strong to focus on the possible relevance the story might have in today’s society. It is a cliché to state that times have certainly changed since the narrative themes burst forth into our consciousness. But it is safe to say that Lucy Moss’ staging is as self-aware as it can possibly be. Moss, riding on the global success “Six”, brilliantly uses the opportunity to satirise pretty much every stereotype possible. Nobody is safe. But what is extraordinary under her direction is the sheer sense of fun she brings to the production.
“Six” alumni Courtney Bowman commands the stage as the central character, Elle. Heartbroken after being dumped by her boyfriend Warner (Alistair Toovey) for not being serious enough, she decides she can win him back by showing she can achieve the same ambitions in the legal profession as him. In a plot line that loses touch with any form of credibility, she is accepted into the law school, rises high against odds and prejudices and eventually surpasses Warner. Along the way, everybody is put in their place, including misogynist law professors, jealous perjurers, closet gays. In fact, the characters who come out on top are the underdogs. The seemingly vacuous who ultimately reveal more depth than those who mock them.
Despite being hindered by a predominantly unmemorable score, the show still wins us over with its anergy and infectious comedy. And a couple of musical delights. The wit of O’Keefe and Benjamin’s lyrics shine through in particular during “Serious”, “Blood in the Water” and “Gay or European” which is surely the highlight of the night. It is miraculous how the words are sung so clearly with tongues so firmly set in the cheek. Homophobia, jingoism, and a whole host of other ‘isms’ are shot to the ground in a joyous few minutes of musical theatre snap, crackle and pop. Act Two opener, “Whipped Into Shape” showcases Ellen Kane’s slick choreography, pushing the all singing, all dancing ensemble to the limit.
“Legally Blonde” retains its comedy and loses none of its subversiveness in this brash and thoroughly camp production at Regents Open Air Theatre. It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers. Whilst there is little room for subtlety against the backbeat and spectacle, the current MT trend to introduce a Disney, cartoon-like, nasal shrillness to the delivery does grate over a couple of hours. But it’s worth it to reach the happy ending, buoyed up by the feel-good sensations that bounce the evening along.