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REVIEW: Othello | The Lowry

Joan Davies on a trimmed Othello that's well worth a visit but not the whole story

Written by . Published on November 24th 2014.

REVIEW: Othello | The Lowry

FRANTIC Assembly bring their highly physical brand of theatre to The Lowry’s intimate Quays Theatre with their much lauded production of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Transposing the themes of jealousy, suspicion, betrayal and retribution, underlain by racism, to a Leeds pool room is fine, so long as it isn’t understood as a study of the community who use the pool room.

Cut to just 100 minutes, the core of the story remains. Othello, raised to prominence through battle success, yet aware that in a society permeated with racism his position will always be at risk, is an easy target for an insistent voice preaching betrayal. Iago, embittered by the promotion of Cassio, feeds Othello false stories of Desdemona’s infidelity to her husband, and feigns evidence to condemn her.

Othello, LowryOthello, Lowry 

This production moves the tale from the courts of renaissance Venice to the pool room of a working class Yorkshire pub, with battle honours earned during the riots of 2001 and accents and outfits to match. The audience enters to a loud track of house music; loyalty, bonding and suspicion are played out through expressive movement and interactive contemporary dance, and Shakespeare’s words have an immediacy and impact when they break through.

The ensemble work is exact and convincing, and the four leads are strong.

Mark Ebulue as Othello, combines abilities from his RSC-experience and his former work as a kickboxer to deliver a performance which works on all levels, his outsider status accentuated by a London accent. Iago played by Steven Miller keeps the story clear, while Kirsty Oswald as Desdemona reinforces the genuine confusion and ultimate fear she encounters when Othello accuses her. Ryan Fletcher in the role of another outsider, Cassio, plays him as a Scotsman. He’s entertaining throughout, particularly when feeling hard-done-to.

The company’s reputation for highly physical communicative theatre and the play’s place on the A level syllabus ensures box-office success. The place is packed... with teenagers. I feel ancient. Even my 22-year-old niece feels a bit old as she recounts her Othello exam experience.

As a company, Frantic claim 'in choosing to present a Shakespeare play, the challenge then is how to stay true to the language as written whilst at the same time refusing to use a form that, for many people, renders Shakespeare unwatchable, obsolete, boring, irrelevant, elitist.'

Othello, LowryOthello, Lowry

They have reduced the text from around 28,000 words to about 13,000, replacing much of the opening speeches with a danced overture, retaining much which has power, and altering the balance throughout the performance.

While there's much gained from the physicality and the setting, much too is lost. Some aspects of the hierarchical structure of society, those above Othello and Desdemona’s ranking position, are missed. More importantly, the hidden away until you scratch-the-surface racism is less apparent, and Iago is given no opportunity to explore layers of his motivation. The key story of the handkerchief seems out-of-place, and the role of Emilia as a servant jars.

But it’s a vibrant production which held attention and prompted much discussion on the tram back into town, more so than the Argentina vs Portugal match which had just finished at Old trafford.

Designer Laura Hopkins and lighting designer Natasha Chivers have produced a superb set which moves between realism and an expression of inner thoughts, as the script requires. A musical soundtrack by Hybrid supports the dance and creates atmosphere, and signals key moments. 

Transposing the themes of jealousy, suspicion, betrayal and retribution, underlain by racism, to a Leeds pool room is fine, so long as it isn’t understood as a study of the community who use the pool room.

I’m reminded of the different pictures of Mancunians painted by the BBC's People Like Us and the Manchester Dog's Home Story. I’m also wondering what proportion of their A level student-dominated audience find Shakespeare 'unwatchable, obsolete, boring, irrelevant, elitist.'

This production – watchable, modern, exciting and relevant - is well worth a visit, if you can find a ticket, but it isn’t the whole story.

Othello runs at The Lowry until Saturday 29 November.

Tickets here.

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