The Tempest, Courtyard, Stratford<br>Othello, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Antony Sher&#8217;s colonialist Prospero inhabits an island layered with meaning, but Lenny Henry&#8217;s Moor is too stiff to touch the heart

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 22 February 2009 01:00

‘This island’s mine,” cries John Kani’s black Caliban, enraged at Antony Sher’s white Prospero. The air quivers with political reverberations in this touring South African production of The Tempest, co-presented by Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre and the RSC.

As the former Duke of Milan, in exile, Sher’s Prospero has gone semi-native. Bushy-bearded in sandals, he practises his magic with touches of shamanism, donning a ceremonial African robe. His opponents are spellbound when he swishes his gnarled staff, possibly carved from the tree that encircles his cell – knotty as a giant ginger root against a turquoise sky.

Ariel and the other spirits – summoned by the magus with tic-like shakes of the head – sport tribal body paint and spectacular masks of raffia and feathers. Sometimes they trill like birds, amidst flurries of dancing and drumming. Janice Honeyman’s production expands Prospero’s fondness for masques into a near-carnival. Towering puppets on stilts celebrate his daughter’s wedding, once he is prepared to let her go.

For all that, Prospero wears the linen suit of a European colonialist under his robe, and he is a slave driver and supremacist when it comes to Kani’s stooped, vilified Caliban, who’s kept chained up. Of course, Kani is legendary for his role in The Island (as in Robben Island) and other protest plays created under apartheid. So his chorusing of “Freedom!” is particularly potent. This Caliban – no monster – never loses his dignity. And ultimately surrendering his command, Sher addresses his epilogue to him. “Let your indulgence set me free,” he pleads, hoping for grace and reconciliation.

Honeyman’s production is disappointing in that none of the younger actors are a match for their elders yet. It’s a non-egalitarian evening in that sense. However, Sher is particularly intriguing in his yearning for Atandwa Kani’s lissom Ariel. His hand repeatedly reaches out, only to hover an inch from the other’s beauty – untouchable because of racism or homophobia? Or because Ariel is, after all, an immaterial spirit, like a mirage in Prospero’s imagination?

The political reading does not exclude other levels of meaning. The idea that we are all such stuff as dreams are made on – ultimately vanishing without trace – dawns on Sher like a sudden recognition of his own mortality, and the tic-like shaking of his head, as he strains to weave his last spells, is like an accelerated portrayal of senescence – universally poignant.

Actor-director Barry Rutter’s touring Othello, in historically imprecise Edwardian dress, offers few insights. His company, Northern Broadsides, enticingly apply their regional accents to Shakespeare and highlight the initial scenes’ earthy imagery. This is surely a Venice of the North, as Othello’s detractors sneer about old black rams tupping white ewes. But beyond this, the accents aren’t illuminating. The maid Emilia (nearer RP) sounds oddly posher than her mistress, Desdemona.

The main concept is celebrity casting: giving comedian Lenny Henry the role of tragic hero. Now, this might well encourage new punters to dip a toe in theatrical waters and it’s impressively game of Henry to shoulder the part, as a long-term Bardophobe only recently converted.

So how did he do? Well, to say he’s not half bad would be erring on the generous side. He has a showstopping, rich bass voice. The downside is he’s awkward, looking as if he doesn’t know what to do with his arms while he is reeling out his iambic pentameters. He stands majestically tall, but as stiff as his military riding boots. Rutter also seems to believe the audience will feel involved if his actors face the auditorium, never conversing with each other. They turn like a row of windsocks.

Frankly, no one puts in a fine performance, even if Conrad Nelson’s Iago seethes with paranoid jealousy, and Jessica Harris makes unexpected sense of Desdemona, playing her as a naïve girl prone to treat serious matters as a joke.

Henry starts by playing his Othello as a commander with a twinkly sense of humour. He also logs the vitriolic racism of his father-in-law, giving Rutter’s bug-eyed Brabantio a steely stare followed by a sad shrug. Yet others’ xenophobic slurs are barely registered, and Henry plays surging jealousy and grief with sporadic conviction.

This play may be a dark farce from the perspective of Iago – constantly saluted as an honest fellow by the innocents whose fates he juggles. But as Henry rushes his speeches and Nelson drags out his, this production has neither tragic nor comic timing.

‘The Tempest’ (0844 800 1110) to 14 Mar and touring; ‘Othello’ (0113-213 7700) to 14 Mar and touring

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