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Review: Othello at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Frantic Assembly’s robust retelling of Othello has gone back to the pub for a third round of drinks, aggro and futile bloodshed.

The physical theatre practitioners first grasped Shakespeare’s senseless tragedy by the scruff of the neck in 2008, relocating its tale of conflict, jealousy and revenge from 16th Century Venice to a pub/social club in a run-down modern-day English town.

They revived the production in 2014 and now it’s returned again, this time for an autumn tour of men behaving badly.

Othello is essentially what happens when testosterone meets gullibility, and there’s plenty of both in the air at the Playhouse where the muscular production has put down its coat this week.

The play evidently remains a key text for schools; I studied it for A level more than 35 years ago, and large groups of teenagers made up the audience on opening night here - albeit receiving quite a different experience to the one I remember at a mid-80s weekday matinee at the RSC.

Of course, the genius of Shakespeare is that he speaks to all ages and all people, and whether his words are delivered in doublet and hose, flowing robes or, as here, in baggy tracksuit bottoms and sportswear, they pack the same powerful punch.

The production is adapted by director Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, but the bruising text is all Shakespeare, and whatever the pool cue-wielding melee going on around it, it’s delivered with absolute searing clarity by the cast.

Michael Akinsurlire’s Othello, all biceps and sleeveless tops, is the leader of a local gang of lairy, disaffected and dangerously unpredictable lads recognisable to anyone who lives in an urban community.

The reaction to his intense liaison with Desdemona (Chanel Waddock), daughter of a local white man, shows how racial tensions can simmer just beneath the surface in the same way social tensions do. And while his gang leader may seem measured of speech and brave in a fight, beneath there’s a vein of vulnerability and uncertainty ripe for manipulation.

Above: The cast of Frantic Assembly's Othello. Top: Michael Akinsurlire as Othello.

Enter Joe Layton’s baseball capped Iago, simmering over a slew of perceived slights - simmering which quickly turns into malignant murderous intent.

Layton’s Iago is a first-class viper because on the surface he seems so completely unremarkable. But beneath the grey, Nike-clad exterior (uniform of the gang’s food soldiers), and reasonable words, his ‘honest’ man burns with low cunning and malevolent fury.

He physically whispers in his target's ear. But if Shakespeare had been sitting down to write Othello today, his arch villain might just as easily have been a persuasive YouTuber, sharing his ‘truth’ with his susceptible viewers, or spreading dangerous misinformation on social media.

Elsewhere Tom Gill’s Cassio is a straightforward street brawler (without cunning), while former YEP actor Felipe Pacheco offers a measure of light relief in a charming performance as the dispensable, hapless naïf Rodrigo.

Iago may feel a burning injustice about his lot, but he should try being a woman in Othello!

Apart from it being one of Shakespeare’s most overt VAWG stories, his trio of female characters are (unsurprisingly) painted by the menfolk as either angels and/or whores and treated accordingly. But there are odd flashes of bravery among the women’s penned passivity, not least from Emilia’s (Kirsty Stuart) eventual denouncement of her husband.

This being Frantic Assembly, there's plenty of trademark slo-mo choreographed physicality, although most of it is expended in the first act in wordless fight sequences accompanied by a pumping, invasive soundtrack and which punctuate the keenly delivered prose.


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