Comedian Lenny Henry made his professional stage acting debut at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last night (19 February 2009, previews from 14 February), kicking off a national tour playing the lead in Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides production of Othello (See News, 2 Oct 2008).
Henry, who admitted recently to being "allergic" to Shakespeare until an Open University course changed his mind, has become something of a national treasure since making his television debut in 1975 at the age of 17. He soon became a leading fixture on the stand-up comedy scene, and has myriad tv credits including Three of a Kind, Chef!, The Lenny Henry Show and Hope and Glory.
One of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Othello centres on the destruction of a Moorish General after he's tricked by his jealous ensign Iago into believing his young wife Desdemona has had an affair. Henry is joined in the cast by Jessica Harris as Desdemona, Conrad Nelson as Iago and Maeve Larkin as Emilia.
"I was expecting to review a theatrical car crash" admitted Charles Spencer in the Telegraph, before, like most of his critical colleagues, lavishing praise on Rutter's production - "one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen" according to Spencer. Not all were totally convined, with more than one critic highlighting some weaknesses in Henry's diction. But the overall sentiments were positive, with Conrad Nelson impressing as Iago (more than one notice made use of the descriptive "reptilian"), and Maeve Larkin credited by most for lending Emilia "a rare and moving integrity".
Ron Simpson on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “The answer to the question, 'Can Lenny Henry manage it?', is a decided yes. He has magnificent stage presence, summons up all the dignity the early scenes demand, speaks the verse intelligently and rages powerfully and convincingly … Conrad Nelson’s Iago is the dominant performance. Less obviously a military man than some I have seen, he is the epitome of “honest Iago”, his dealings with his gulls marked by solicitous concern, the break into the truth-telling of the soliloquies abrupt and sometimes shockingly funny … Jessica Harris effectively projects the innocence of Desdemona and complements Othello well in the death scene, but is overshadowed in the play’s last act by Maeve Larkin’s fine passionate Emilia.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “I don’t think Lenny should give up the night job, or, rather, he shouldn’t regularly substitute his old joky evenings for new tragic ones; but his Moor is far better than I, or indeed he, had feared. There are flaws in his performance, but also the dignity, the anger, the bewilderment, the pain the part demands … There’s a problem, though it’s one that afflicts several actors, at times even Conrad Nelson’s excellent Iago: a rushed and sometimes scrambled diction … But time will surely teach Henry to put more rubato and lento and less presto into a performance that has undeniable merits. Henry’s Othello is the husband, tender and doting. He’s the general, curt and tough.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Frankly, I was expecting to review a theatrical car crash. What a pleasure then to report that Henry truly triumphed last night. From his entrance, there is no mistaking his sheer stage presence and impressive bearing. But he delivers the verse with compelling clarity and dignity too, and his love for Desdemona in the early scenes is touchingly manifest as she leaps joyfully into his arms … This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen ... Full marks ... to Barrie Rutter, boss of the Northern Broadsides company, for such a risky piece of casting, and for directing a fast-moving production that features a host of strong performances, most notably from Conrad Nelson as a particularly vile and reptilian Iago.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Henry, without challenging memories of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Moor, makes a perfectly decent fist of it in a rather tame, middle-of-the-road Northern Broadsides production … Henry's voice may not always measure up to the rhetorical music of the verse, but there is a simple dignity to his performance that touches one … But little else in Barrie Rutter's production raises the temperature. The play's military context is sketchy, and Ruari Murchison's set is a bland all-purpose affair of embossed double-doors and Venetian blinds … For the rest, there is a Desdemona from Jessica Harris who could do with more in the way of upper-class spiritual mettle, and an Emilia from Maeve Larkin who, perversely, is almost too ladylike for a professional soldier's wife.”
Lynne Walker in the Independent (four stars) - “Henry – who has grown a soldierly beard and shaved his head – looks the part of a great general. Towering over the rest of the cast he has an enormous physical presence that turns to animal magnetism … By the time Conrad Nelson’s reptilian Iago has worked his black magic, cannily exploiting the credulity of Othello’s jealous nature, Henry’s emotional dynamism is in no doubt. The frenzy within his imagination explodes into rage and, finally, wretchedness. It’s not a subtle reading but it works powerfully in this context ... As Desdemona, Jessica Harris is childlike in her teasing petulance, while the indeterminate pitch of her Willow Song sums up her bewilderment. Maeve Larkin gives the role of Emilia a rare and moving integrity.”
- by Theo Bosanquet