When Lenny Henry made his professional theatrical debut as Othello, there were a few eyebrows raised. It’s one thing tackling Shakespeare for the first time, it’s another taking on one of the most demanding roles in the Shakespearean canon - but he generated some decent reviews.
It was almost inevitable that Barrie Rutter would bring his Northern Broadsides production of the tragedy down to London, providing a rare chance for southern audiences to appreciate Rutter’s take on Shakespeare with his strong emphasis on making the plays accessible. It’s a briskly-delivered production - Rodrigo’s assault on Cassio appears to take place in Desdemona’s bedroom such is the haste to get on with the action - while Ruari Murchision’s gloomy, dark-wooded set casts a bit of a pall over proceedings.
In some ways Othello is a strange choice for a comedian to make - it’s one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, with little comedy to enliven the mood. What Henry does bring to the role is a dignity and a speaking voice that appears to be an octave below his normal range. His verse-speaking isn’t always spot-on but it’s a pretty fair performance and an astonishing one for a debut.
What is missing is any sense of military authority from Othello: this after all, is a person renowned for his martial spirit and Henry never quite convinces on this. Nor do his love scenes with Jessica Harris’ rather insipid Desdemona provide any indication of a passionate relationship. But Henry does come to life in the play’s conclusion - there's something very sorrowful about his killing of Desdemona and one can see the remorse hang heavy on him - if only he could bring that level of intensity to the whole play.
Nor does Conrad Nelson bring any sense of the bitter jealousy that eats away at Iago, nor any air of military command - it’s little wonder than he loses out to Cassio. He speaks his lines very quickly (too quickly, some speeches are nearly inaudible) and his skittishness masks the deviousness. It’s almost as if he engineers Othello’s downfall as a private gag. He really comes to life in the drinking scene, which is cleverly done, but with its brass band-driven cheerfulness seems to have come from a different play.
There are some good performances in some of the smaller parts. Geoff Leesley is a Brabantio clearly smarting from his daughter’s abduction and Simon Holland Roberts is a clear-spoken Lodovico.
This won’t go down as one of the great Othellos but Henry does more than just have a valiant stab at it - there’s a real humanity in his performance - but the production, despite some excellent moments, never really enthralls.
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from February 2009, and this production's premiere run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Northern Broadsides’ production of Othello, in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse, has caused such expectation that the Leeds, Scarborough and Halifax legs of the tour have been long since sold out. The draw, of course, is the Shakespearian debut of Lenny Henry. Taking on such a role is challenging enough without becoming the season’s hot ticket and facing audiences that in part have come to see Lenny Henry the comedian, not Othello. At Leeds the early scenes were dogged by inappropriate (as well as appropriate) laughter which unfortunately recurred when Desdemona revived briefly!
For all that, 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. However, there is a certain understandable carefulness in his performance and in general the element of risk-taking is less in evidence than in most Northern Broadsides productions.
This Othello is a good, conventional, well-cast production with no real weakness. There is only one stirring musical number, a very jolly affair when Cassio falls foul of drinking games, and most of the play passes without any musical accompaniment – maybe composer Conrad Nelson was busy elsewhere! The early Venice episodes are rather static and many of the Northern accents are barely noticeable – or, in Othello’s case, non-existent.
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. Frequently placed by director Barrie Rutter front-stage even when only observing the action, this Iago is the medium through which the audience views the action – until finally he slumps into unreachable silence.
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. Richard Standing (Cassio) and Matt Connor (Roderigo) both bring out the characters’ foolishness, sometimes very amusingly, without caricature or condescension, and there is luxury casting throughout, with Barrie Rutter as Brabantio and the excellent Fine Time Fontayne limited to the Duke, Gratiano and the banjo.
Ruari Murchison provides a single sombre architectural setting, with useful balcony and doors, Guy Hoare’s lighting exploits the shadows and Stephen Snell’s Edwardian costumes tend towards subdued shades.