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Othello (Susan Elkin reviews)

This version of Othello takes us to a thuggish world of gang warfare, ruthless competing for girls and a great deal of violence with rounders bats and knives. Adapted for Frantic Assembly by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, this Othello relies heavily on physical theatre which almost becomes dance drama to support and propel the narrative and it’s very effective. It opens, for instance, with a long wordless sequence at The Cypress (stands in for Cyprus – get it?) where everyone swarms around the snooker table. Back stories are revealed and we see Othello (Mohammed Mansaray) and Desdemona (Rebecca Hesketh-Smith) meet for the first time. It’s so vibrant, noisy and theatrically exciting that it’s almost an anti-climax when we suddenly hear these people saying things such as “O, sir content you’ or “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom” but of course it soon settles, our ears adjust. and the succinct, fast paced two hour (including interval) piece is both riveting and profoundly shocking.

Mansaray’s Othello is a fairly benign gang leader with natural authority. Carefully voiced in a South London accent seasoned with a hint of Jamaican this Othello sounds curiously childish and hesitant when he’s being gentle. Later when he’s angry and bent on revenge his voice deepens and, whites of his eyes spinning, he becomes both frightening and pitiful. It’s a well judged performance by a promising young actor. Hesketh-Smith is delightful and very natural as Desdemona, an ordinary girl whose “misfortune” is to fall in love with a charismatic man of a different racial background. This play may have been first performed in 1604 but the issues it explores are as topical as ever. Hesketh-Smith gets the horror beautifully as she realises he really is going to kill her and a gold star to whoever thought of positioning their bodies in exactly the same way for the strangling as for the lovemaking earlier in the play. The snooker table, by the way, doubles as a bed – another imaginative idea – this time from designer, Laura Hopkins. On several occasions her set moves – to denote Cassio’s (Eddie-Joe Robinson – good) drunkenness for instance and the roof lowers during the strangling which is an ingenious way of making us experience the action from the characters’ point of view.

Lighting designer Amy Mae ensures that we never forget that this is a very dark play either. At the end of the first half we see Jamie Rose’s half crazed Iago crouched on the snooker table with his evil, plotting face lit white in a surrounding pool of near black. Rose never makes us understand quite why Iago is hell bent on destroying Othello but he finds plenty of stealthy thuggery and cunning in the role. In real life his character would be dragging a very ugly, thick set terrier to add to his street cred. It’s strong work. Megan Burke is good as Emilia too, especially when she rumbles Iago, stops being just a friend and commits herself totally to getting justice for Desdemona, Then Burke becomes a real tour de force.

I saw Othello just two days after seeing the same sixteen young actors, who form the NYT’s 2017 Rep Company, in Jeckyll and Hyde. Taken together the two shows are an excellent show case demonstrating their versatile talents and I hope lots of agents and casting directors were there to snap them up.

First published by Sardines http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-National%20Youth%20Theatre%20of%20Great%20Britain%20(NYT)-Othello&reviewsID=3003

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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