JOE Layton returns to his native Yorkshire from tonight to play Iago in Frantic Assembly’s electrifying reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello at York Theatre Royal.
Once more he will confirming his English teacher’s hunch at a parents’ evening that Ilkley lad Joe “had some talent for acting”.
“He said, ‘I don’t say this very often, but I would encourage Joe to apply for drama school’,” he recalls.
He duly did so, supported by teacher Tony Johnson, who provided not only encouragement but help in preparing audition speeches. “I owe him a huge amount,” says Joe. “He came to see the last show I did in Leicester and hope he’s in the audience for Othello.”
This is Frantic Assembly’s third staging of their award-winning account of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder, set in a volatile 21st century wherein Othello’s passionate affair with Desdemona becomes the catalyst for jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents.
Shakespeare’s muscular yet beautiful text combines with the touring company’s own bruising physicality in a world of broken glass and broken promises, malicious manipulation and explosive violence, previously staged in 2008 and 2014 and now updated for 2022.
Frantic Assembly have had a marked effect on his career and aspirations already, as he was part of their Ignition programme – a free nationwide talent development programme for young people aged 16 to 24 – in 2009 and later appeared in Frantic’s The Unreturning.
“It’s for all genders now but Ignition started out as an all-male programme and was a space where sensitivity and masculinity were explored in a non-toxic way, which I hadn’t experienced before,” says Joe, one of no fewer than five Ignition graduates involved in Othello this season.
He saw Frantic Assembly’s original production in 2008 but it was another of the company’s shows that was particularly influential: Bryony Lavery’s two-hander Stockholm. “I must have been 15 years old,” says Joe. “It was one of those mind-blowing moments that gave you goosebumps. That was the moment I said to myself, ‘I want to work with Frantic one day’.”
His professional debut came two years later in Nikolai Foster’s production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm at West Yorkshire Playhouse. As a 17-year-old schoolboy, he was given special dispensation to leave early several days a week to do the Leeds show.
Looking back at his first encounter with Frantic Assembly’s Othello, Joe recalls how “it really leapt off the page for me and made it accessible, especially for teenagers. It was real, visceral and immediate”.
Now he is playing Iago, the poison-dripping baddie of the piece, or is he possibly misjudged? Psychopath or “a bit of a villain”, Joe must ask himself. “As an actor, you have to get inside them, understand them, what makes them tick, and do the things they do which, in Iago’s case, is hideous, unforgivable things,” he says.
Movement becomes as important as words in Frantic Assembly’s style book. “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters. Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director [Scott Graham]. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.
“We begin rehearsals with a one-hour workout and high intensity training. The rest of the morning is given over to movement sequences. Everything is really highly choreographed. There’s nothing that happens on stage that’s not choreographed.”
Joe grew up in Ilkley, moved to London for drama school, met his wife in New York and now lives in the United States, while working on both sides of the Atlantic.
He headed to America after being scouted by a top actors’ agency. “I don’t regret moving to Los Angeles because it was a really interesting period of my life, although challenging in a lot of ways. I moved away from family and friends and all that sort of stuff.
“I couldn’t work for six months because I was waiting for my work visa to come through. I was a 21-year-old with not much money just sitting around.”
One role to emerge from his USA move was Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. He was not picked for the role for which he auditioned but was offered a different one. He took part in the series for only a few weeks but found working in the Marvel superhero world to be “a whole different ballgame”.
“I have an agent in the US and the UK,” he says. “One of the things that really changed through the pandemic is that everything, including casting, went online, which means there’s even less need to be in London. It seems the industry is getting less London-centric. You can audition on film anywhere, read a scene and be cast off the tape. That’s been great for me in terms of quality of life and being able to live in America.”
During lockdown, Joe spent an enforced period back in Leeds while visiting family for Christmas celebrations. Unable to go home, he spent six months living in his grandmother’s cottage near Pateley Bridge.
He will return to the USA during a break in the Othello tour. “My wife is at home in America. She’s a writer and working on a new book, so she’s pleased to have me out of the house and have time for herself and her writing.”
Frantic Assembly’s Othello runs at York Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Did you know?
Joe Layton (Iago), associate director David Gilbert, co-choreographer Perry Johnson, Oliver Baines (Montano) and Felipe Pacheco (Roderigo) have all taken part in Frantic Assembly’s Ignition programme.