Frantic Assembly’s roughed-up, seized-by-the-scruff-of-its-neck version of Othello keeps shining new lights on Shakespeare’s play. When I first saw Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s adaptation 14 years ago, the switch of setting – to a pool bar in the 21st century – was invigorating, but the main excitement was the way the stage seemed to be expanding its vocabulary. Shakespeare’s words were there all right, but their meaning was danced as well as spoken.
In Graham’s new production, which is concluding a nationwide tour with a London run, the velocity and agility of movement is still breathtaking. Characters seem to lean on the air or be pushed by it; the atmosphere might be another cast member. The dynamics of the plot are evident before anyone speaks: Iago scissors himself between Othello and Desdemona; male bodies arch back and forward, as if tugged by gusts of violence; Desdemona and Emilia swivel towards each other for a chat, their limbs making a protective chamber as they bend together.
Still, this time the revelation is different. What struck me most forcibly now is the way Othello’s violence can be seen growing from the entrenched habits of fighting that surround him. With the sheer outnumbering of women by men more evident than ever, the play becomes without strain a tragedy in which males are automatically pitted against females. Michael Akinsulire’s Othello may be cranked up by Joe Layton’s muscular, slippery Iago but he goes on to kill because bludgeoning comes so naturally, is so all-pervasive.
The evening opens to the sound of drums and the sight of flying fists and hurtling limbs – with pool cues slid around suggestively. No wonder it should end in a clamour of violence. Akinsulire’s delivery is staccato, as if each phrase were a stab. Beside him, Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona (big hoops and Lycra) is fresh, unposh, relaxed. The key to their relationship is Emilia’s late plea for women to behave with the same liberty as men. It is a mighty speech from one of Shakespeare’s most vivid characters, but it isn’t always given due weight. Finely framed by this production, Kirsty Stuart makes it the verbal high point of the evening.
The Unfriend transfers to the West End after success at Chichester. Sherlocked-up – directed by Mark Gatiss, written by Steven Moffat and with Amanda Abbington among the cast – it is at the other end of the comedy-thriller spectrum from the now long-running 2:22 A Ghost Story: humorous, with a few chiller touches.
A couple find themselves hosting a holiday acquaintance whom they believe to be a serial killer. Preposterousness is scattered with perspicacity: the couple’s reactions are, well, strangled by politeness. The murderess turns out to have a liberating, beneficial effect on the hitherto sullen family.
Robert Jones’s design of suburban interior and roofscape wink at sitcom; clever Michael Simkins blends seamlessly into this as the flatpack neighbour so dull no one can remember his name. Plot and performances flirt with farce. Frances Barber, both luscious and frightening, has a smile so wide she looks capable of carrying out her threat to gobble every one up; praise is due to head of wardrobe, Amy Jeskins, who gives her an apricot velour tracksuit with, on the back, the glittering instruction to “Love Life”. Reece Shearsmith, hovering between the feeble and the sinister, provides a knockout poo episode: face slipping all over the place, loo brush held aloft in the sitting room, stumblingly putting far-from routine inquiries about faeces to a policeman.
None of the teasing or nudging lands much of a point, and edginess quickly evaporates – though there is an impressive performance from Gabriel Howell as a teenager who moves from slump to sunshine. Yet at a matinee, an appreciative audience gave a glow of enjoyment to my experience: cosiness reigned; the theatre seemed to be an enormous communal sofa.
Gathered around a boxing ring, the audience for On the Ropes watch Mensah Bediako slugging it out as Vernon Vanriel, in a play written by Vanriel himself with Dougie Blaxland. They are watching a Windrush battle, a fight between British authorities and people they treat as subjects – not citizens.
Vanriel, who grew up in Tottenham, rose to fame as a flamboyant fighter (draped in the union jack), struggled with addiction and depression, and was, after an extended visit to Jamaica, barred by bureaucratic tangles from returning to the country where he had spent 43 years. He was finally rescued from 13 years of destitution when Amelia Gentleman wrote about his plight in the Guardian and MP David Lammy took up his case.
It is an important story and it exerts a grip; it deserves more incisive treatment. Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s production is not tough enough with the episodic, all-inclusive script: it straggles. Still, the rhyming dialogue is often fleet-footed, and the music – from Jimmy Cliff to Nina Simone – wonderful. And no one could fault the shape-changing talent of Amber James as she shifts in turn from being pious mother to jobsworth official to sweet, hip-swinging sister. When she lets the music out of her throat you want her to sing the whole action. What a blues ballad that would be.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Unfriend ★★★
On the Ropes ★★★