Modern music at the beginning of the play and the setting indicate from the start that Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Othello’ is a modern adaptation. The Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth production at The Lowry in Salford does not put the audience into a 17th century setting in Venice, but places them into a filthy Northern pub full of gang members during the race riots of 2001 in Yorkshire.
Shakespeare’s timeless themes of jealousy, paranoia, otherness and distrust are represented well in the production. The sinister choreography underlined by blaring music is melted together in scene settings changing from the pub to the dark street, where fights take place.
Othello, played by the talented Mark Ebulue, is married to the fair lady Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald). But because of societal prejudice, they are not supposed to be in love. Cassio, poignantly portrayed by Ryan Fletcher, therefore tries to turn Desdemona black. Iago (Steven Miller), Othello’s lieutenant, helps Cassio in doing so. The audience quickly notices that he is the one, who is the catalyst of the plot. He spins a web of lies for his own enjoyment, while other characters have to suffer and even die.
Due to Shakespeare’s timeless topics and modernised costumes consisting of jogging attire and trainers, and the Northern accents of the actors, the play manages to resonate with the young audience. ‘Gosh that was amazing’, one teenage girls said while leaving the performance. But the question remains if the play was too modern and thus failed in dealing with current issues. Adapting Shakespeare should also mean to question the representation of men and women and not to portray them in an inflexible, gendered and rather conservative way.
Male brutality and superiority were emphasised on stage and the role of Desdemona was portrayed as a character lacking intelligence. Emilia was the only character who tried to break out of the fixed boundaries with the outspoken well-known sentence about the relationship between men and women: ‘They are all but stomachs, and we all but food, They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us’.
The play managed to impress young and old and the performances of the actors despite the portrayal of not so modern gender stereotypes.