The day I cast Lenny as Othello

Can a comedian play Shakespeare’s tragic hero? Yes he can, says Barrie Rutter, as his production arrives in the West End
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At the end of a two-hour session directing Lenny Henry doing Othello’s last speech for his BBC Radio 4 programme Lenny and Will, he asked me if he’d passed the audition. Was he good enough to play it? Now listen – when a big, black, beautiful, national celebrity is looking you in the eye waiting for a response, with the producer’s recorder still running, it is no time to negotiate the negative.

For weeks I pondered the possibility. Sought the wisdom of the strong right arm of Northern Broadsides, Sue Andrews. Plotted with my |associate Conrad Nelson (no dilemma there, he would play Iago). I told them Lenny was the right age, had an impressive stature, a marvellous |resonant voice, good responses to textual requests and was obviously no duck egg. What to do?

Enter from stage left, Ms Sweet Serendipity. The sparkling new Capital Centre on Warwick University’s campus had recently opened; its artistic director, Professor Carol Rutter (yes, since you ask, mother of our two daughters, ex-wife, friend and colleague), offered us a day workshop with 40 students on Othello; would we accept? We certainly would.

During that thrilling Sunday, as Lenny and Conrad mesmerised and intrigued a rapt student body, I knew that I would be said duck egg if I didn’t invite him to play Othello. From then on, it was simply a question of dates and diaries. We opened in February this year: four weeks at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, six weeks on tour, 96 per cent capacity. (It’s impossible to achieve 100 per cent; that’s why you must always take a chance, dear audiences.)

Now Othello is coming to the West End; eight shows a week, a rambunctious cast and Lenny Henry. What the three months in London will bring, I have no idea. Both barrels of Commercial Land are aimed at us: we cannot even sell our own unique advert-free programme but, as Lenny keeps telling me, “we’re Northern Broadsides and we do what we want, alright!” Right Len.

I doubt we’ll replicate the warmth and romance of the responses we’ve had to our previous work. A farmer once wrote thanking me for a production of Antony and Cleopatra he’d seen at the Skipton Cattle Market – the only cattle market in the country with a theatre licence and pioneered by us since 1996 – “I bought sheep on Wednesday and Shakespeare on Thursday, bloody good value both. Unfortunately we cannot come to your next production as we will be lambing.” I sent it straight to the then head of the Arts Council, Lord Gowrie – accessibility? Outreach? You’d better believe it.

At the Elsecar Heritage Railway centre near Barnsley, an old lady who had worked in Shed 21 since she was a young lass was drawn by curiosity to see what was going on in “her” shed, especially as she’d never been to the theatre in her life. On leaving our production of Twelfth Night she said to her friend, “Well, that were nice. In fact it were vurry nice. An if it ’ad bin any nicer, it’d bin right nice!”

I hope all those who offered their advice, wisdom and experience to Lenny for his radio programme come to see his Othello. I hope Harriet Harman comes: she’ll see a bunch of unapologetic northerners inside the Castle Keep of southerndom. The new Speaker is coming, too. Hardly the stuff of Shed 21 or sheep’n’Shakespeare – but everyone’s welcome.

Barrie Rutter is Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides Theatre Company. ‘Othello’, 11 Sept–12 Dec, Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0870 060 6632; )