sat 20/07/2019

Othello, Trafalgar Studios | reviews, news & interviews

Othello, Trafalgar Studios

Othello, Trafalgar Studios

Improved but still not vintage Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry: at times touching as Othello, but struggling to engage our emotions

For someone who until very recently had an avowed dislike of Shakespeare, stand-up comic Lenny Henry makes a decent fist of Othello. It’s an astonishing role in which to make his stage acting debut - complex emotions are expressed in rhetorical gymnastics and he’s rarely off stage - but not for one moment does one believe Henry guilty of hubris. Rather, this is a man who has come to the Bard late (Henry is now 51) and clearly fallen in love with him.

When I first saw this Othello (a co-production between Northern Broadsides and the West Yorkshire Playhouse) in Leeds last February, I was underwhelmed. Henry wasn’t the embarrassment many critics feared (actually, some wanted him to be, as it makes for better copy) but he was stiff and awkward about the stage and his diction wasn’t all it should be. In the interim, before it moved last night to Trafalgar Studios, he has learned what to do with his hands and his delivery has improved, but the production remains rather ordinary and Henry’s jealous Moor still struggles to engage our emotions.

Barrie Rutter's production, in typical Northern Broadsides style, is fast-paced, direct and loud. It has few directorial flourishes and it’s not a subtle reading of the text - there’s too much unnecessary shouty-shouty and an inexplicably drawn-out singalong in the guard-duty scene - but he certainly brings out the play’s humour. I don’t remember laughing nearly as much at any previous production of Othello, and that’s surely a welcome thing for those A-level students in the audience who are studying the text.

Yet the weaknesses grate. Henry towers above the rest of the cast but his large physical presence doesn’t exude authority, still less military bearing, and as for the necessary magnetism between him and Jessica Harris's  Desdemona... Well, at times it was more like she was having an innocent giggle with her favourite uncle rather than romantic exchanges with her passionate new lover. The easy playfulness with Richard Standing’s Cassio, however, is almost enough to suggest they are indeed more than just good friends, which could confuse the plot somewhat.

Conrad Nelson as Iago spits out his venomous lines and his venal hatred of Othello is almost palpable. He has a distinctly reptilian look, but is strangely lacking in charisma and so obvious is his machiavellian plotting that one wonders how on earth anyone on stage could be taken in by him. Standing plays Cassio full of innocent sweetness and Harris’s later scenes with Emilia (Sara Poyzer) are powerful and moving.

But this production, rightly or wrongly, is about Lenny Henry. His early description of his love for Desdemona is sweet and the “It is the cause” speech is genuinely touching, but his descent into jealous, murderous rage doesn't entirely convince. And the emotional depth one hopes for in his portrayal of one of Shakespeare's greatest characters is never quite reached.

Henry towers above the rest of the cast but his large physical presence doesn’t exude authority

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