There may never have been a more unlikely setting for Shakespeare’s tragedy of jealousy than a West Yorkshire housing estate pub at the turn of the millennium.
Pool tables and dingy lighting don’t immediately conjure the expected surroundings for an honorable outsider drawn to the bosom of his comrades by his soldierly activities and feats of bravery. Yet this is exactly where Frantic Assembly sets its new take of the Bard’s famous text, which is currently playing at the Lyric Hammersmith.
In a town thrown into chaos by fighting between Asians and the rest of the local community, Othello’s worth is proved on the gangland battlefield. But among an all-white gang, he is still the outsider and ready to be shot down.
This is an Othello of velour tracksuits and hoodies, snapped pool cues and broken beer bottles, where aggression, violence and sex are common place, ruling the hearts and minds of all the pub’s regulars; where it would be easy to believe that your wife had drunkenly fooled around with a trusted friend.
In playing the arch-manipulator Iago, the man who plants this seed of doubt, Charles Aitken delivers a man of brash arrogance, full of bully boy bravado. His baleful tempter struts around with shoulders back and head held high, ready to take on the world. His wide grin, flashed at the audience, hides 1,000 lies.
As one would expect from Frantic Assembly, this Othello is imbued with an expressive physicality, the scenes of dialogue interspersed with wittily choreographed physical sections depicting everything from Friday night revelry to gang fighting and the touching tenderness and playfulness of Othello’s early relationship with the doomed Desdemona (Claire-Louise Cordwell), who, in a modern day pub, is more than capable of sticking up for herself.
Jimmy Akingbola as the Moor, biceps straining against the sleeves of his polo shirt, is at times calm and thoughtful, but, as one would expect in a community driven by simmering hate, is ready to erupt in a fit of fury at the slightest provocation.
This West Yorkshire pub might not immediately seem an obvious stage for a Shakespearean text, complete with Shakespeare’s own words, but Frantic Assembly proves preconceptions wrong, dishing up a 21st century urban Othello with blood coursing through its veins.