The night I saw Frantic Assembly’s revived touring production of Othello, the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton was full to the brim with excited school groups. What was even better was that the kids had been set an assignment to review the piece, so it was pretty endearing to watch as they tried to scribble notes in the dark after the most poignant monologues and altercations. Best of all, though, was a moment when Steven Miller’s satisfyingly slimey Iago weaved his arm through Othello’s, standing behind him to likewise point towards the deed apparently committed between his wife and Cassio. The girl sat next to me, having clocked this symbolism, turned to her friend and mimicked the movement beautifully. What better character study could there be than to get out of the classroom and not just see the physical language, but to want to replicate it?
I loved Shakespeare at school (yes, I was that girl). But I had grown disdainful of his plays of late, purely because I couldn’t turn a corner of the world of theatre without seeing an advert or a review for yet another reimagining, restaging, rehashing of the same old stories we will seemingly play out forever more. However, in the same way that Frantic Assembly inspired excitement in the school audience at the Nuffield (cheering, whooping, rapturous applause), they have reawakened my love for the Bard.
To put it simply, it is due to the way that Frantic Assembly put together a production that makes this retelling the stunning piece of work that it has been heralded as. It is in the purposeful symbolism of the set design, the costume, the music. The calculated movements, the searing performances. It is due to framing the bar where this play takes place with a series of flats that move and bend to disorientating effect, communicating drunkenness or mental and emotional discord. It is the pool table, played throughout, that comes to its own climax when Lodovico tells Iago to “look on the tragic loading of this bed”: the careful setup of all the balls to pot both the black and the white.
Most provocatively, it is in having the ladies’ toilets on stage, while the gents’ toilets are out of sight. What is the meaning of this? Must we have the women’s private deeds flaunted infront of us, primed for criticism and slut-shaming, while the men can slip discreetly out of sight? Sounds familiar. I’ll leave you to wonder whether Shakespeare was simply ahead of his time.
There are more, so many more, moments of pure visual genius. The production is bulletproof. Everything has already been questioned before it reaches the stage so the implications of what we see are undeniably purposeful, rich in possibilities. And, let’s face it, Shakespearean verse is not most people’s common tongue to express lust or love, anger or jealousy. The physical gestures, however, are universally understood. Pass a pool cue through a girl’s hand at just the right angle and an audience will know exactly what you’re aiming for.
But, my opinion that all of this clever set design and physical language makes the original play clearer will not be shared by all, and I would wager that this is something very specific to already knowing it reasonably well. But Frantic Assembly have not brought this play into the tracksuit clad, party hard 21st Century to accurately restore the production of Othello from the 17th Century. Although, neither is its stance as a direct response to the Yorkshire race riots of 2001 very obvious, except in hindsight.
Regardless, between a misplaced handkerchief and Scott Graham’s source of inspiration, the piece’s relevance prevails. What we see is a black man, feared and respected by his peers, who is manipulated by his friend to believe his white wife is betraying him for another white man.We see Iago and Emilia’s poisonous relationship, the sisterhood between Emilia and Desdemona, the comedic post-rendezvous debrief between Bianca and Cassio. We see women battling for equality, men humbled by their own masculinity and the furtive importance of trust and forgiveness in friendships and relationships.
Frantic Assembly have cut parts of the textand tell those stories in a way that is more relevant, accessible and engaging, with all the fire that is less easily found in the text, but that music and physical gesture can evoke. That’s why we reproduce Shakespeare, and that’s why a Frantic Assembly retelling works so well. I have no doubt that the year 11s will look back on this production in 10 years’ time, when we are facing the next all-female/all-male/digitally enhanced/staged-on-the-moon production of Othello, and what they will remember is how much they enjoyed it.
Thank you, Frantic, for reminding me why I ever loved Shakespeare.