Frantic Assembly’s charged interpretation of Othello simmers with tension, violence, and toxic masculinity. Though transported to a contemporary London pub context, Shakespeare’s themes of jealousy, manipulation, and betrayal remain piercingly relevant. Scott Graham’s direction of outstanding choreography along with commanding lead performances make for an electrifying night. Palpable physicality and raw, masculine energy define the production, foregrounding the corruption of male power that the women fall victim to. From its ominous opening to its shockingly brutal climax, Frantic Assembly’s Othello sinks its hooks in deep and refuses to let go.
Scott Graham’s vision for Othello heightens the play’s themes of toxic masculinity through the lens of lad culture and gang violence. By redefining military battles as gang wars in 1990s London, ancient prejudices boil to the surface in an unsettling present-day context, where flick knives replace swords as the weapons of choice. Machismo and hot-headedness prove as dangerous here as on any ancient battlefield. Using a combination of primal, hard-hitting choreography and elegant soliloquies expertly examines the confusion in Othello’s mind.
While relocating the action to 1990s London pub culture, Graham’s production retains Shakespeare’s pointed commentary on prejudice and xenophobia. Regardless of his military standing and earned respect, Othello’s status as a Black Moor in white Venetian society casts him as an eternal outsider, leaving him vulnerable to Iago’s schemes. Despite rising in the ranks as a great general, racial biases prevent Othello from fully transcending suspicion about his otherness.
These prejudices take on renewed relevance given recent Black Lives Matter movements and immigrant tensions in Britain. Graham’s choice to align Othello with a London gang dominated by white men further accentuates themes of otherness and the tragedy of internalised racism that still plagues society. The timeless core of Shakespeare’s tale magnifies the production’s impact.
As Othello, Michael Akinsulire delivers an intense, tormented turn as the self-doubting outsider trapped in Iago’s web. His imposing physicality contrasts with emotional vulnerability, giving Othello’s descent into jealous madness shades of tragic complexity.
Joe Layton is as pure dynamite as Iago, capturing the cunning villain’s manipulation and thirst for revenge. Layton’s lines drip with malicious intent as he enacts his plans to bring down Othello. His energy shifts seamlessly from quiet scheming to explosive outbursts that command the stage.
Chanel Waddock captures Desdemona’s undoubting love for Othello with her heartfelt performance. Waddock allows the audience to fall in love with her through her sweet innocent persona. The chemistry Chanel Waddock shares with Michael Akinsulire is undeniably what brings the entire performance to life, making their destruction even more painful for the audience.
Tom Gill makes for a dashing, earnest Cassio, while Kirsty Stuart brings a sharp edge to Emilia beneath her steely loyalty. Kirsty Stuart emphasises female power in the play, an element which is often lost in other adaptations of Othello. The supporting cast provides strong contributions in multiple roles, driving the action forward with pulsating choreography and dialogue.
The play kicks off with an impressive choreographed movement piece depicting a striking image of gang violence. Scott Graham uses the actors strong physicality to create a masculine and rough feel to the play, but still holding controlled accuracy, making it pleasing to watch. The opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the production.
Scott Graham’s artistic intention is easily reached through the combination of incredible acting performances and enchanting design elements. The set, designed by Laura Hopkins, transforms the Lyric Hammersmith stage into The Dog and Gun, a fittingly gritty pub setting. Strategically placed scaffolds, steps, and tables establish the masculine atmosphere, while graffiti-tagged walls hint at a violent history. Empty pint glasses and overfilled ashtrays strewed about further ground the action in pub culture and working-class London.
The set lends itself to the performance due to its endless tricks and transformations. The walls of the dark dingy pub bend and absorb Othello as he falls into his madness, further emphasising his deep mental destruction. The walls also spin and create the back of the pub, creating room for more violence and deviance under the cover of dark. Othello’s private conversations with Iago often occur in shadowy corners, highlighting his isolation and internal turmoil. Desdemona and Emilia’s private conversations occur in a cramped bathroom stall which appears on stage as a kind of “mini box set”, highlighting the strength of female power and sisterhood in the play, a hidden sub-theme which Graham highlights.
Throughout the production, Nick Powell’s haunting prepared piano score builds gut-wrenching tension. The instrument’s strings are manipulated with nails, glass and more to create an eerie, pulsating effect. The compositions act as psychological underscoring, amplifying rising conflicts and emotional distress in characters.
Tense silences give way to eruptions of staccato notes and cyclic motifs. During the pivotal temptation scene between Iago and Othello, the piano’s escalating cries and gasps echo Othello’s guttural laments. Alongside hiss-filled cymbals and rumbling percussion, the fragmented melodies form a caustic aural assault that mirrors the characters’ brittle mental states.
Lighting becomes an important emotional cue in the play, setting the tone for each scene. Particularly, the intimacy scenes between Othello and Desdemona are scored with blush purple and vibrant pink lights, symbolising the love the couple share. The lighting choice, made by Natasha Chivers, helps to build a strong sense of romance even in such chaotic violent circumstances, and really adds to the passionate side of the play. In another sense, bold lighting shrouds certain exchanges in sinister reds and blacks.
The costumes evoke the 1990s pub scene through bomber jackets, jeans, and boots. Othello donning a black leather jacket signals his assimilation into the gang. Iago’s nondescript hoodie disguises his villainy, while Desdemona’s minimal clothing represents her honesty and sexuality against this harsh backdrop.
Frantic Assembly’s Othello has earned enthusiastic praise for its visceral choreography and outstanding lead performances. The unconventional setting and edits to the play text have proven controversial among some more orthodox Shakespeare diehards. However, most reviewers acknowledge that the production successfully intensifies Othello’s drama for a contemporary audience.
Graham’s gripping staging earned raves as “a powerful study in male brutality” (Evening Standard) and an “exceptionally good production” (TimeOut). The brutal physicality amplified the tragedy’s inherent violence, with The Guardian concluding that this adaptation “keeps shining new lights on Shakespeare’s play.” Overall, strong word of mouth shall continue attracting diverse crowds.
The production consciously embraces themes of toxic masculinity, using choreography and testosterone-driven staging to tear open Shakespeare’s text. Graham’s immersive, in-your-face approach may not suit traditionalists. But for most, Frantic Assembly has breathed fiery new life into one of the Bard’s most enduring works. This outstanding Othello warrants all the buzz and acclaim it has generated.
Frantic Assembly’s electrifying take on Othello makes Shakespeare shockingly relevant for modern audiences. The company’s gut-wrenching physicality paired with outstanding lead turns exposes the savage brutality at the tragedy’s core. While detractors criticise textual alterations, this production undeniably succeeds in unleashing the play’s visceral power. Through the lens of lad culture and pub violence, Othello’s themes of isolation, manipulation, and prejudice take on renewed resonance. Graham’s vision offers no comfort or release for its haunted characters. Only through confronting such ugliness can we address the toxic forces that continue poisoning society. Indeed, this confrontational rendering may not suit all tastes, but its passion and relevance are undeniable.