This critically-acclaimed adaptation of Othello thinks about who the Moor might be in the modern day.
Even now, in 2014 – nearly 400 years after his death – it still feels like Shakespeare has something to say. This is an impressive, but widely accepted, idea. What’s sometimes forgotten is that his words now need a bit of help. The shapes his characters speak in are less recognisable, while the ways their worlds resonate in contemporary culture have to be thought about. And, when an adaptation works, it’s easy to overlook those that, clumsily, don’t.
Gritty with broken glass and choreography defined by a violent grace
Luckily, Manchester has a strong track record. Stepping up next in a season of theatre that has boasted HOME’s Romeo and Juliet and Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a version of Othello by Frantic Assembly at The Lowry. The company presents a leaner, meaner version of the script, gritty with broken glass and with a choreography that’s defined by a violent grace. Othello is a bouncer at The Cyprus, a pub in a corroding Yorkshire town and the play is set during the race riots of 2001. This is a white male-dominated society, where his rise to power occasions hostile jealousy.
Here, a pool table becomes a bed and a battle ground, while Desdemona and Emilia, fag in hand, choose the toilet block in which to talk. Cues are used as weapons – and not just in the figurative sense. When this version was staged at the Theatre Royal Plymouth back in 2008, Lynn Gardner wrote in the Guardian that it “excavates the tribal loyalties of young, white, working class men.” This is not just about what Shakespeare has to say in 2014 – it’s also true to the way that, when properly thought through, society can still use Shakespeare to explain itself.