28 May 2021

Othello - National Youth Theatre Review

Following last weeks 5 star triumph of the National Youth Theatre's production of Animal Farm, the same rep company return with their second production, an abridged version of Shakespeare's Othello running all week at Royal and Derngate before both productions go on a short tour.


Once again before I dive into the production I must again heap praise on the safety measures in place at Royal and Derngate. Being the press performance it was a bit busier than the matinee I attended the week prior but the stringent safety procedures made me feel safe from the get go. Arriving at the theatre you check in on the NHS Track and Trace App before following a one way system to the auditorium. The staff are great and so welcoming and that instantly puts you at ease with everything. I was particularly impressed with the way people were navigated out afterwards. Much credit to the front of house team and all the staff at the theatre who have put these smoothly running safety measures in place.


The company of Othello. Photo by Helen Murray

On to Othello, as I mentioned it's an abridged production, or Othello Remixed as it's described in the programme. This is Shakespeare at its most contemporary. This production finds its setting in the 90s rave scene with much of the action taking place in and around the nightclub, Club Cyprus. I didn't know the play before or it's plot and I do wish I'd at least looked the synopsis up as the opening 30 minutes or so of the production that ran 100 minutes straight through was a bit lost on me - I found it a little hard to keep pace with who was who, how they were connected and why things were as they were. Things got a little lost in the language and the noise of the setting.


I did enjoy did enjoy much of Miranda Cromwell's production though. The nightclub setting - although the background music did sometimes drown out what the actors were saying and I think that contributed to me being a bit lost with the plot at the beginning. It's sometimes hard enough to follow Shakespeare's language without actors fighting against club music in the background. Visually that design has been well thought out though, Rose Revitt's stage design is great, with the use of mirrors and white sheets being really effective - if you were missing a proper night out with your mates this will make you even more nostalgic for one. Zoe Spurr's stunning lighting is the chef's kiss on the design front. The use of bright vibrant colour and the use of silhouette's throughout is really clever.


Casting Othello as a female adds a real layer of modernity and is a key decision in the success of this production. It makes the piece feel relevant, fresh and important and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers is superb as the title character, she pitches her performance superbly, so self-assured and confident. She's matched by Alexandra Hannant's fantastic Desdemona. Connor Crawford's delivery of Iago is tremendous, much like he's menacing performance as Farmer Jones in Animal Farm he's on top form again, his frantic meddling has him on edge the whole time. Julia Kass's Emilia is magnificent, she captures the character with real skill even as she knows how her husband is behaving. Ishmel Bridgeman's calculating Cassio is both streetwise but with a bit of youthful brashness. This company of young actors from the National Youth Rep are as strong as they come.


Alexandra Hannant (Desdemona) and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (Othello). Photo by Helen Murray

The use of a chorus I really enjoyed, most of these actors seemed to be on stage throughout dancing and looming like spirits voicing suspicions throughout. These whispering voices became a key player in the mind of Othello and she gets lost in the jealousy that ultimately undoes Desdemona. Adeola Yemitan stands out from these, she's a mesmerising presence particularly as she looms during the latter scenes of the play. 


Dzifa Benson's script keeps the language of Shakespeare and adds in the occasional swear word along the way - not always necessary but in fitting I guess with the setting. I think in hindsight had I known the play beforehand I'd have connected to more of what was going on initially but I thought there could have been a little more time establishing the characters at the beginning although maybe that was lost in the language or the music drowning some key points (it's certainly where I missed having a physical programme - although you can get a digital copy from Royal and Derngate's website).


All in all though, this is a production that will split people, some will love it and some will hate it. I fully applaud the risks that the company have taken with the piece and the work they've done on both productions. Here are a strong set of young actors who will be destined for big things going off their work in both shows. I sided it with thoroughly enjoying it once the production settled down. One things for sure it'll certainly create good conversation on the way home! 


Rating - ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐- a fresh lyrical remixing of Othello with outstanding performances that is a little muddled in places.


Othello continues at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 29th May 2021 (click here for tickets). Both Othello and Animal Farm then go on a short tour - check here for details


Connor Crawford outstanding as Iago. Photo by Helen Murray


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