It's not unique or even unusual these days for comedians to be cast in Shakespearian productions. I suppose that's because comedians not only possess considerable acting ability, but their comedic observations about human foibles and life in general can inject fresh insights.
Comedian Lenny Henry apparently had an aversion to Shakespeare until he did an Open University degree which changed his views and he now seems to be quite a fan. In this version of 'Othello' Henry takes the lead as the Moor, the successful general whose life is ruined when one of his trusted soldiers, Iago, connives against him.
The focus, and indeed most of the interest surrounding this production is in what Lenny Henry accomplishes in the role. And in general it's a surprisingly successful performance that shows Henry has the necessary acting capability and understanding of the text. He is also blessed with physical characteristics which could have been designed for the part. First, he has the stature of a general which gives him the necessary physical presence on stage. In addition, he has a mellow, rich voice which has considerable range and projects well in a large theatre. Although Henry is obviously out of his comfort zone, he's not afraid to look the audience right in the eye – this Othello certainly isn't shy! And in the emotions' department, he moves easily between child-like whimperer and raging bull.
Of course, in 'Othello' there are really two star roles, and Conrad Nelson provides not only great support for Henry but also acts as a counterpoise. Nelson's Iago is a lithe, slippery, snake-like manipulator. When he says 'I hate the Moor', he does so with a powerfully-convincing venom that comes from the heart as much as the brain.
First produced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February this year, the real success of this 'Othello' lies in the sheer quality of the entire company. Apart from some odd variations in the northern accents, the acting is compelling. Geoff Leesley's performance as Brabantio, Desdemona's father, is particularly authentic and natural. Leesley's dialect is spot-on, and he defines a bluff, gritty, no-nonsene northerner with traditional values who is outraged when he discovers that the Moor has secretly married his daughter. And Sara Poyzer as Emilia took command of the stage in determined style with her moving and poignant revelations at the end of the play.
Lenny Henry's comic technique isn't totally absent from this production. Early on, there's a scene where he skips off stage with his new bride and you know it's his invention - the kind of business Henry includes in his comic characterisations. Apart from that, this is a serious production in which Lenny Henry shows he has the guts combined with the determination and skill to tackle something well outside the scope of his comic endeavours. And though this isn't one of the great Othellos of all time, it's a memorable production in part because Lenny Henry is authoritative and convincing but also because it's not simply a one man show – the rest of the cast shine just as much as their leading man.
"Competent but unastonishing production...Like the production itself, [Lenny] Henry acquits himself decently but unexcitingly."
Lyn Gardner for Independent
"Brisk and efficient."
Henery Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Rutter's production is uneven, drably designed and costumed. Yet it has a peculiar impact that derives both from our knowing that the well-loved [Lenny] Henry is a Shakespeare novice and from his extraordinary feat in persuading us to forget that fact."
Paul Taylor for Independent
"Has clarity, narrative drive and wit."
Sarah Hemming for Independent