“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.
“a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production”
This production from Lazarus Theatre Company reduces Shakespeare’s longest play to a concise one hundred minutes, performed without an interval, by axing all the adult characters. No Claudius, no Gertrude, no Polonius…
The work was initially created as part of an actor in training programme, and the production fails to escape these origins. It still looks and feels like an actor’s workshop rather than a finished piece of theatre. Part of this is deliberate: the setting is an unspecified young person’s space: part drama studio, part therapy group, part corrective training establishment.
The theatre space (Designer Sorcha Corcoran) is stripped back to its black walls exposing the lighting bars, the floor is scuffed with just some fresh blue lines marking zonal space providing some colour. A circle of blue plastic chairs and two props cabinets are the only set. The lighting (Designer Stuart Glover) is often blue too giving some ambience, whilst brighter light from the side bars causes shadowing issues.
An ensemble of nine actors is summoned into the circle by the ringing of a bell. Everyone is dressed in blue sweatshirts, tracksuit bottoms and training shoes. Each is invited to tell their story by an unknown amplified voice (Micha Colombo). This is the method by which Shakespeare’s plot is moved forward; at key moments the voice informs the young people of activities by the missing adults, or of offstage action not seen (“Hamlet has killed Polonius”). The amplified voice becomes an unseen presence with characters looking fearfully upwards, knowing that everything they do is observed. Is this voice then a helpful counsellor or Big Brother?
Central to almost every scene, Hamlet (Michael Hawkey) dominates the action. The remaining ensemble is pushed to the cramped sidelines, slightly but not completely out of the light. Hawkey grows into his role as the play progresses, but the need for speed often impairs the clarity of his diction. Noise from the wind machine and electronic sound effects mask the spoken word in the appearance of old Hamlet’s ghost – although Horatio (Alex Zur) boasts some fine vocal quality – and the occasional use of a handheld microphone with its inherent pops and bangs jars, particularly in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The effectiveness of choral speaking during the Ghost scene is also marred by the amplified sound.
Director Ricky Dukes keeps the actors primarily at a distance as if intimacy between them is not permissible. Hamlet interrogates Rosencrantz (Amber Mendez-Martin) and Guildenstern (Raj Swamy) from the full width of the stage, and again when Hamlet berates Ophelia (Lexine Lee) with “Get thee to a nunnery”. Lee plays her role in an effectively calm manner. When she leaves the stage pursued by a handheld camera, TV screens show her movement through the backstage corridors to her untimely and bloody end in a toilet cubicle.
A comic Players’ scene (Kiera Murray and Juan Hernandez) is nicely done and Kalifa Taylor shines in her lone dramatic rendition. Laertes (Sam Morris) lacks sufficient anger on hearing of Ophelia’s fate but a slowmo sword fight (Fight Direction Alice Emery) between him and Hamlet provides an effective way of staging the final scene.
What is achieved then in this radical rethink of how to present Hamlet is a series of vignettes held together by the framing device of the Voice. This cast, the majority of whom are appearing in their first professional production, all require a little more polish and the production is rather rough around the edges. Considering the loss of so many key roles, though, Lazarus has produced, perhaps surprisingly, a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production.