Lenny Henry, stand-up comedian, has turned stand-up tragedian. The 50-year-old is turning his long experience at deflecting racial insults to good use in the title role of Othello. It’s a brave step to put yourself forward as a new face on the serious stage, interpreting the part on which – in more than any other Shakespeare play – the whole play hinges. In this co-production between Northern Broadsides and West Yorkshire Playhouse, no one is surely more aware of the risk than Henry.
His previous encounter with the Moor of Venice came in the Hollywood flop True Identity in which his character had to understudy James Earl Jones as Othello. Henry apparently watched the 1965 film version with Olivier as Othello for the National more than 40 times. Now it is the former performer on a Black and White Minstrels tour who has had to learn to speak in an exotic accent, deepen his voice and develop a special walk. Only thankfully he hasn’t. Henry doesn’t even talk with a Dudley accent, and there’s scarcely a trace of his Jamaican roots, although, as usual, everyone else in the Northern Broadsides camp has some sort of distinctive and occasionally distorting northern burr.
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. His voice carries and, while his timing is sometimes still a little shaky, his verse-speaking can sing. The racial outsider stands dignified, rather than arrogantly, above the abuse thrust at him by his young wife’s father. Playfully indulgent towards Desdemona, just when this Othello seems lacking in temperamental insecurity, Henry springs into vengeful action.
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.
Of course, it’s not all about Henry. Nelson’s vulgar, self-regarding Iago is at least as compelling in his casual audacity and obsessive treachery. 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.
Making only a brief appearance as Desdemona’s outwitted and outraged father, Barrie Rutter has directed a touring Othello that is both visually accessible and theatrically captivating. The music, mainly martial brass and drum, is intrusive, adding little to an atmosphere in which the heavy silence of the final chamber scene makes the greatest impression. Played out on a muted set of façade, balcony and tall doors, all evocatively lit, with costumes of an indeterminate Victorian style, the production has more guts than polish. But there’s no lack of emotional texture in a show that is, rightly, more of an ensemble evening than a star vehicle for Henry.