HOW reassuring to see packed houses for theatre shows in York this autumn, whether for Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d at the Theatre Royal or SIX The Musical at the Grand Opera House.
Sitting next to Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird on Tuesday night, he revealed that 60 schools – yes, 60 – had booked for Frantic Assembly’s combustible 21st century reimagining of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder.
“That’s the draw of Frantic Assembly, not Othello,” he said. Maybe, but you don’t have one without the other.
The crackle of excitement in the air, the cheers that greeted the company’s arrival on stage, brought to mind the electric surge triggered by the visits of Emma Rice’s Wise Children company, most recently for Wuthering Heights, that again drew young audiences in abundance.
You could draw comparisons between the two companies: the importance of choreography; the almost dangerous physicality of the performances; the unexpected moments of humour; the chemistry and one-for-all and all-for-one commitment between actors; the instant bond with the audience; the drive to bring text to thrilling life; the propulsive power of thunderous music.
Yorkshireman Joe Layton, who plays an incorrigible Iago, puts it this way: “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters,” he says. “Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.
From the off, that working practice is borne out in a fast, furious and, yes, frantic Othello, adapted, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett, newly updated for the 2022 tour co-produced with Curve, Leicester.
That opening feels like plugging into the powerlines of The Prodigy’s Firestarter in a wordless, breathless scene-setter that introduces characters (Shakespeare), setting (Laura Hopkins) and soundscape (Hybrid) all at once.
Think Shameless or This England; a bar with a pool table and a slot machine; bottled beers; everyone off their heads or on a short fuse in high-street zip tops, trainers, hoodies, stretchy sportswear and joggers.
One long Friday night, full of broken glass, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents; a darker brew of John Godber’s Bouncers, where the booze meets the bruise.
Let Frantic Assembly light the fuse, then stand well back, but feel the fierce heat from all that brutal physicality as Layton’s mendacious manipulator Iago winds up Michael Akinsulire’s Othello, the Moor, who is as muscular with Shakespeare’s words as he is physically, his eyes bursting, his mind mangled, his baseball bat never far away.
This is an Othello of myriad street accents, making it universal, from Tom Gill’s Scouse Cassio to Akinsulire’s North London Othello; Chanel Waddock’s Essex Desdemona to Kirsty Stuart’s Scottish Emilia.
The pace is relentless, the dialogue hot on the tongue, the choreography dazzling, sometimes beautiful and sensuous, as in Akinsulire and Waddock’s pas de deux spread across the pool table, later to be repeated in such contrasting circumstances at the finale.
Frantic’s trademark physicality extends even to Hopkins’ design, suddenly coming to life in wave-like motions, first when a drunken Cassio staggers along the wall, and later when Othello is overcome with shock at what he has done, wishing it might swallow him.
Nothing sums up this Othello better than Iago’s prophetic T-shirt, Just Do It. Let’s hope Frantic Assembly will be back to “just do it” again, whatever the play, because Shakespeare all shook up this way demands a follow-up with more of this full-on brand of theatre.
Frantic Assembly’s Othello, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2pm, Thursday; 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk