Othello at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Image above: Frantic Assembly’s Othello at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Men exercising their power over women through violence, again

Photographs Tristram Kenton

The set reminds me of the local youth club my parents forbade me to go to – a grungy bar dominated by a pool table, where the local youth spent their time amusing, irritating and trying to get off with each other, and unspeakable things went on in the toilets.

The action switches between there and the dimly lit car park outside, which you would not choose to walk through on your own, unless of course you were arranging an illicit meeting or intending to attack someone.

The actors are all in trackies and scuffed trainers and T shirts, Desdemona with a Croydon facelift – hair severely scraped back off her face into a tight ponytail. She is lithe and strong – a strong character and fit, but at the same time vulnerable, and certainly no physical match for Othello, who is big – tall, ripped and every inch the alpha male.

She doesn’t have a chance once Iago starts dripping venom into Othello’s ear. How depressing that this play about betrayal, love, jealousy and male violence was written 400 years ago, but it is a selling point of the Lyric’s production that it is particularly relevant to a young audience today.

Image above: Chanel Waddock and Michael Akinsurlire as Desdemona and Othello 

It is a Frantic Assembly production, which means they’ve cut the text by at least half and introduced choreographed sequences of young people hanging out, sparking off each other, having sex, and fighting in the scruffy bar and car park with a DJ’s music mix ramping up the excitement.

I confess I had not seen Othello before, or ever studied it, so the missing text bothered me not one bit. What you don’t know you don’t miss. I loved the physicality of it, though my companion (who had seen Othello, the full version, several times) was getting impatient by the end of the opening sequence, which must have been a full five minutes of dance and mime with no dialogue.

The love scene on the pool table was poignant and beautifully suggestive, and of course that is where he also kills her, strangling the life out of her.

Image above: Frantic Assembly’s Othello at the Lyric, Hammersmith; Joe Layton second left

Interview with Joe Layton, who plays the shifty, snide, malicious, self-pitying Iago

Joe Layton, who plays Iago, has been touring with the play throughout the autumn. The production comes to the Lyric well-polished.

“I saw it first when I was a schoolboy” he told The Chiswick Calendar. Frantic Assembly first produced it in 2008 when he was at Bradford Grammar School.

“It grabbed me and pulled me off my seat”.

Joe has had “really nice TV jobs with Dawn French [The Trouble with Maggie Cole] and Jodie Comer [Thirteen]” and travelled all over the world acting, but this is his first Shakespeare role, apart from an appearance as a student in the Shakespeare festival at the Globe theatre in 2013.

“It’s bucket-list stuff” he says.

He does it well too. Shifty, snide, malicious, self-pitying.

“Iago is a man who has fallen through the cracks” he tells me. “He’s been let down multiple times. The driving force behind Iago is maliciousness.

“There is huge subconscious racism but it’s not about racist hate crime, he’s been poisoned by the betrayal of his best friend, who he thinks has had sex with his wife.”

Image above: Michael Akinsurlire leading the cast of Frantic Assembly’s Othello at the Lyric, Hammersmith

The cast are all good. It maybe feels more like an ensemble cast than it would have, had they had not cut so much out. Othello, Desdemona and Iago stand out, but the others are less developed as characters. Maybe they also feel more like an ensemble cast because they are in a constant flow of movement, interacting with each other physically in dance and mime, moving as one.

Michael Akinsulire’s Othello is the unquestioned leader. He owns the stage with his presence. Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona is his equal. It is clear before they even speak that she is smitten and would probably do anything for him, making the lie of her betrayal even more ironic.

It is fast paced, it grabs you, but it is just such a sad reflection on the human race.

Frantic Assembly brought us The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeone of my all-time favourite pieces of theatre. Their productions are thrilling to watch. Othello is on at the Lyric, Hammersmith until Saturday 11 February.

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