If the pubescent audience I sat with at the Ambassador Theatre is anything to go by, the National Youth Theatre is succeeding, beyond its mission to nurture and mature new talent, in introducing fresh-faced audiences to the rewards of the theatrical experience. As per The Stage, this is a matter of some urgency; the average age of today’s theatre-goer being 52, and the largest subset of the audience belonging to the 65-74 demographic. The theatre may be largely a refuge from the young and restless today, but if today’s audiences aren’t replaced, tomorrow’s houses will be empty.
Frantic Assembly’s production of Othello, directed by Simon Pittman, retools Shakespeare’s tragedy for millennials by being shrewd enough to first acknowledge, then capitalise on the cast’s dearth of grey hairs. Those familiar with the play’s cultivated exploration of manipulation and jealousy will already see the potential in mapping those all too familiar failings to fledgeling relationships between adolescents.
Writers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett retrofit the text to spill from the mouths of youths without youth; the victims, if you’re liberally minded, of brutal, urban gang culture, where the warring factions vie for a strip of council estate and the local pub. In the broken Britain imagined here – the kind that once kept David Cameron up nights, necessitating a milk bottle from Nanny, the kids prowl with baseball bats and the boys make territorial claims on the girls. So much for 400 years of progress. But Shakespeare requires passion, hierarchical structures and camaraderie ripe for breaking, and here the transposition to Martin Amis’s nightmares seems natural. It’s a great fit.
What’s crucial for any Othello is that tangible sense of a soul being blackened before our eyes. Pittman’s adaptation sells the Bard’s examination of evil on the make, thanks, in particular, to Jamie Rose’s wide boy Iago - a serpent in a tracksuit, and Rebecca Hesketh-Smith’s tender Desdemona. Her age, and therefore presumptive innocence, serve the play’s tragic arc very well, while the pared-down dialogue, carefully grafted between visceral knockabout sequences and tense standoffs, produces something like the most poetic episode of EastEnders never made.