As previously tipped (See The Goss, 29 Sep 2008), comedian Lenny Henry (pictured) will make his stage acting debut taking the title role in Othello. The new co-production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) and Northern Broadsides, directed by Broadsides’ artistic director Barrie Rutter, will open at the WYP in Leeds, running from 14 February to 14 March 2009, before embarking on a two-month tour which concludes at Northern Broadsides’ home in Halifax.

At a press briefing held this morning in London to announce the project, Henry confessed to being “slightly allergic” to Shakespeare. However, after interviewing Barrie Rutter for the BBC Radio Four series Lenny and Will, he was persuaded to collaborate on an Othello workshop at Warwick University, an experience which “utterly convinced” Rutter that Henry could tackle the role, one of the Bard’s greatest tragic heroes.

Lenny Henry rose to fame as a cult comedian, making his TV debut in 1975 on the New Faces talent show. He has been a regular television face ever since, appearing in shows including the BBC’s Three of a Kind, Chef!, The Lenny Henry Show, Hope and Glory and Lenny Henry in Pieces. On film his credits include True Identity, starring opposite James Earl Jones, who he today credited as an “inspiration” in his decision to play Othello (Earl Jones has played the role on three separate occasions).

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Henry revealed that the project would be a “very new thing … a mountain”, but that he’s relishing the opportunity. “This is a very new direction for me, but I’m used to telling stories as part of my stand-up routines, and even though Iago gets all the funny lines, I’m more than happy for him to take them … I hope we can get a whole palette of different audiences into the theatre by doing this project – including people who’ve never been before.”

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Director Barrie Rutter founded Northern Broadsides in 1992. Based at the Dean Clough Mill in Halifax, the company has built up a loyal following after touring to venues including a former cattle market and derelict farm buildings throughout the Midlands. Othello marks the second time Rutter has collaborated with West Yorkshire Playhouse, after the 2006 production of three-part epic The Wars of the Roses.

The male parts are being cast from the Northern Broadsides ensemble, including Conrad Nelson (Iago), Andy Cryer (Montague), Matt Connor (Roderigo), Richard Standing (Cassio) Fine Time Fontayne (Duke) and Rutter himself as Brabanzio. Female casting is yet to be confirmed.

Following Leeds, Othello visits the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (17–21 March), Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (7–11 April), Theatre Royal, Bath (14–18 April), The Rose, Kingston (21–25 April), New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme (28 April–2 May) and The Viaduct, Halifax (5–9 May).

- by Theo Bosanquet