Why did you change Shakespeare’s language? That’s the question that someone in the audience asked leading British theatre company Frantic Assembly after seeing its production of Shakespeare’s Othello, which has been out on tour and arrives at the Lyric Hammersmith this month. Frantic’s version relocates the play from 16th century Venice to a pub on a run-down Yorkshire housing estate in a post-industrial town. That doesn’t sound very Shakespearean. But the company hasn’t changed the language at all. Artistic director Scott Graham is proud that “every word you hear in our Othello was written by William Shakespeare over four centuries ago.”
For Graham, working on a text written by Shakespeare is no different to collaborating with the many contemporary writers with whom the company works, including The Split creator Abi Morgan who penned the hit shows Tiny Dynamite and Lovesong for Frantic, or Succession writer Anna Jordan who wrote The Returning for the company.
“Shakespeare’s really very good,” says Graham wryly, “it’s 400 years of genius. We feel very lucky to be collaborating with one of the best writers in the world. We never wanted to rewrite Shakespeare, we never wanted to compromise the language, but we did want to do a version of Othello where the clarity of the world, of the storytelling and of the tensions and meanings in the play are made very clear. If you do that and do it well, then you can sneak the language in under the radar.”
Frantic do it very well in a production in which Othello, the black man who in Shakespeare’s original has risen to become an admired General in the army, becomes the leader of a local gang. But the cracks in his position begin to show when he marries the daughter of a local white man. In 100 violently watchable minutes, set around a pool table in a pub, the jealousy of gang member, Iago-- who feels over-looked and under-appreciated-- turns malignant, and he persuades Othello that his young bride, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. With tragic consequences.
From a 2022 performance, photo by Tristram Kenton.
We are often told that Shakespeare is our contemporary and his plays speak to modern theatre audiences, but Graham is acutely aware that many of us are put off Shakespeare for life by our experience of the plays at school. He sees it as his job to make Othello – a play about power, male rage, jealousy and murder – seem fresh-minted.
Forget the idea of a play written in a language that seems fusty and difficult to understand, and think instead of a pulsating, tightly choreographed racy thriller. Othello and Desdemona consummate their love on the pool table, the men swagger around the space with an animal grace, Desdemona and her friend Emilia gossip in the ladies’ toilets, and the walls of the pub itself seem to move and pulsate as the emotional temperature in the room changes.
Othello has been one of the company’s greatest successes and brought Frantic new admirers from teenagers to teachers, Shakespeare phobics to Shakespeare scholars. But when the idea of staging a Shakespeare play was first suggested more than 15 years ago, the company – whose pioneering approach to British theatre in which movement and text are married in innovative and thrilling ways – didn’t think Shakespeare was for them. Graham hadn’t even read the play.
But when he did, he recognized that the themes of friendship, sex, betrayal, jealousy and violence were remarkably similar to those which the company had already been mining in a series of productions inspired by their own lives and interests. The company’s ability to hurl themselves across stages to create maximum emotional impact and textual clarity had already won Frantic the kind of following that’s more associated with rock bands than theatre companies. The question was whether they could do that with Shakespeare?
From a 2022 performance, photo by Tristram Kenton.
The stakes were high. Shakespeare is a cultural icon. People have fixed ideas about how the plays should be produced, what you can and can’t do with them. Graham knew it would require brilliant storytelling, a cast who understand every word they speak and harnessing a physical and emotional language so that every word in the original text conveys meaning to the audience. “But it was a risk,” he recalls, “for the first time there was a baggage around the play we were staging. Sometimes people hadn’t liked the shows we had made, and that’s always fine, but this was the first time that it felt as if somebody might see the show and say, “you are wrong, you can’t do that with Shakespeare.”
Instead, what happened was that audiences, both young and old, were relieved to experience a production which didn’t feel like some kind of cultural medicine which if they saw would do them good, but a Shakespeare show that was genuinely thrilling.
The current tour of Othello is its third iteration, but after the initial success Frantic hasn’t been resting on its laurels. While other companies have often been happy to replicate a much-praised production a few years down the line, Graham re-imagined Othello when it went out on tour in 2015 and is doing the same now in 2023 to ensure that it remains razor sharp. When the production first premiered in 2008, it came in the wake of the Yorkshire riots, rising poverty in Britain’s post-industrial cities, and concern about a burgeoning underclass. The current revival lands in a post-Brexit world where there is much talk of levelling up and where cultural movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have created ripples beneath the surface of daily life.
“At Frantic we’ve always been trying to make theatre which feels as if it is about now," says Graham. "In many ways I think that our approach to Othello makes more sense than it did originally. Going back and looking at the play again, I realised how much it is about community. At the start of the play community is working. An outsider, an immigrant, has been welcomed in and rises within that community. But then something happens, and it sparks a darker reaction which allows a slow poison to be dripped into that community and take root. The way it happens so easily is frightening.”
Cover photo by Tristram Kenton from a 2022 performance of Frantic Assembly's Othello which runs at the Lyric Hammersmith from 19th January through 11th February 2023. Tickets available here.