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Review: Othello @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

When Frantic Assembly first produced their modernised Othello in 2008, artistic director Scott Graham hailed the play’s national tour as a ‘breakthrough moment’ for the company. Lauded for its energetic choreography and blistering intensity, the show won its Graham and co-director Steven Hoggett the award for Best Direction at the 2009 TMA Theatre Awards. Now, Frantic Assembly has revived the production, attempting to distil the intervening six years’ worth of experience into a fresh, invigorated perspective on Shakespeare’s gripping tragedy. The play is undoubtedly impactful, yet its throbbing emotion tends to scour the script of its essential subtleties.

Graham lifts Othello and his retinue from the sixteenth-century Ottoman-Venetian War and deposits them in a shabby West Yorkshire pub in the early 2000s. A pool table dominates the set; a fruit machine’s brash lights shimmer in the corner. Iago (Steven Miller), hair buzzed short, is clothed in a black nylon tracksuit, Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald) in a revealing hoodie cut off at her midriff. Othello (Mark Ebulue) swaggers about in a grey vest, a baseball bat his weapon of choice. Tempers simmer just below the surface and regularly boil over at the slightest provocation.

Rhythmic, heavily choreographed fight scenes intersperse the action. Broken bottles, pool cues, and flick knives are the Venetian army’s updated armoury. The walls of the pub occasionally roll back to reveal a dank brick wall scrawled with graffiti, over which hooded characters clamber and jump in their pugnacious revelry. A soundtrack of thumping house music periodically swells to several decibels above comfort-level, invading the senses and conjuring an effective reflection of the play’s all-consuming emotion.

Through this melee, Iago winds his Machiavellian way. Steven Miller’s antagonist is tremendously engaging, somehow managing to retain the audience’s sympathy for the majority of the performance. His discreet orchestration is made obvious through subtle hand gestures only the audience witness, and the stark relief his intelligence and cunning provide against the other characters’ blunt, tribal aggression is a welcome relief. It is only when his truly merciless nature surfaces towards the play’s denouement that a thrilling turning of the tables occurs.

Elsewhere, Ryan Fletcher’s Cassio is enjoyable, his Scottish brogue and languid charm entertaining. It is his drunken scenes that are most absorbing. The entire back wall of the pub set rolls and convulses, the other characters’ motions slow and the pulsating music deafens: effective devices to suggest Cassio’s ill-fated state of intoxication. There is good work from Leila Crerar as Emilia also; her gradual disenchantment with her scheming husband is well drawn out.

It is an undeniable paradox of modernising Shakespeare that, no matter what thought-provoking cultural parallels are exposed, something of the script’s emotional sophistication is always lost. This inconsistency is regrettably applicable here. The visceral content of Scott Graham’s adaptation makes the audience seriously question the moral legitimacy of what the Daily Mail calls ‘Britain’s Yob Culture’, but sacrifices some of the tragedy’s more elegant themes.

Othello’s envious fury is laudably believable, yet his divided heart is as underplayed as to be invisible. Desdemona’s love for her husband is plain to see, but where is the quintessential gentleness that renders her death so tragic? Desdemona is a fragile flower in a battlefield; here, she is a (slightly sympathetic) nettle amongst nettles.

One cannot quite escape the feeling that Graham has been too heavy-handed with his modernisation. The key emotional themes – jealousy, rage, love, hate – are all elevated to a sweltering level but although this creates an undoubtedly exhilarating ride, it simultaneously obliterates the delicacy essential for the tragedy to truly impact. The audience is blown away, yes, but so too is any discernible profundity.

3/5

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