April 8, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Othello (Northern Broadsides) @ The Belgrade Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/PAGES/currentproduction.htm

Othello publicity art

The new Northern Broadsides production of Othello has caused something of a stir this year, with countless articles and interviews devoted to the novelty of one of Britain’s most beloved comedians, Lenny Henry CBE, jumping in at the deep end with his first theatrical Shakespearean role. Broadsides are an ensemble company who rarely indulge in star actors, meaning that Henry’s casting has drawn a great deal of unprecedented attention to the work of Barrie Rutter, Conrad Nelson and their team. Happily, both Henry and Broadsides have risen to the challenge and created a solid, enjoyable Othello that shows off the company’s strengths.

The production’s main pleasures came from the contrast between Henry’s Othello and Nelson’s Iago. Othello was a large man, deep of voice and slow of movement. Iago, however, was wiry and fast. In their shared scenes, Othello was left doddering in the centre of the stage while Iago moved quickly around the edges, surrounding Othello and pressing in on him from all sides. Their movements mirrored their respective thought patterns; Henry’s Othello was not stupid, but took his time responding to new ideas and thoughts, while Iago skipped constantly ahead, trying to keep up with the momentum of his own schemes. Othello was by far the more powerful of the two, but he was simply outpaced by Iago and left clutching wildly at means to deal with information he had no time to process. The innate violence of the character was drawn out by his immediate and instinctive return to graphic threats.

Othello’s simplicity and gravitas combined to make him the anchoring presence in every scene he appeared in. His self-defence to the Duke against Brabantio’s complaints saw him stand stock-still centre-stage and use plain words and accent to justify himself. In Henry’s Midlands accent, the rhetoric felt natural and believable, the honesty and honour of his words coming through rather than any sense of artificial style. This less-is-more approach characterised Henry’s performance throughout, usually to great effect: the unfiltered joy with which he greeted Desdemona in Cyprus, the immediate strength with which he separated Montano and Cassio, the bewildered and increasingly angry expression on his face during the temptation scenes, all contributed to the effect of a plain man being destroyed by external forces.

Henry wasn’t faultless, by any means. His movement was often extremely stilted and uncomfortable, notably during his epileptic fit where he knelt, then deliberately threw himself to the floor, then began convulsing, all movements slightly disjointed from each other. He also had an occasional tendency to gabble words. These small negatives were easily forgotten, though, in the light of his strengths. His slowness made those few moments of physical exertion all the more effective, most impressively as he hurled a knife at Iago in anger which stuck, quivering, in a drawing board (spectacularly done, and the programme reveals a knife-throwing coach was brought in especially). Henry excelled, too, in a moving final scene that saw him retreat further into himself, still and defeated as he sat on the edge of Desdemona’s bed and stabbed himself, before crashing off the bed as he attempted to kiss his dead wife. The injustice of his end even seemed to filter through to Iago, whose vindictive laughter ceased as he stared at his master in sober discomfort.

Iago owned the production throughout, dominating the stage from the sidelines rather than from Othello’s central position. This soldier made a particularly effective show of his service to Othello, snapping out salutes and acknowledgements with military efficiency and performing his duties with a diligent yet casual attitude that suggested his enjoyment of carrying out orders. This was only a show, however, and Nelson’s Yorkshire lilt brought a sneering unpleasantness to Iago’s sexually graphic imagery and sick jokes. He despised Emilia, pointedly not taking her overcoat while collecting those of the other new arrivals in Cyprus, and never let his hatred for other characters slip too far below the surface, for example standing over Othello and smiling evilly as the latter woke from his fit. He was a skilful manipulator, and the temptation scene was a masterclass in the subtleties of sowing suspicion, catching Othello’s eye at key moments in order to emphasise those words useful to his aims.

Unfortunately, the two central performances were not matched by those of their wives. Jessica Harris began interestingly as Desdemona, a young and jubilant housewife with few airs or formalities. Her joyful disregard of decorum offended her father deeply (their relationship reminded me of Victorian new money, Northern mill owners striking rich and attempting to adjust their characters to high class society) as she took Othello’s arm and hugged him in front of the Duke. Her playfulness affected the grave Othello, bringing rare smiles to his face as he indulged her enthusiasm. However, the enthusiasm grew quickly wearing, and Harris’ delivery of lines was weak and monotonous. The second act allowed her to develop some more depth, in particular becoming extremely fearful of Othello after he threw her to the floor. Her subsequent terror at approaching him was interesting, but spoiled by her flipping too quickly between fear with Othello, carefree gossip with Emilia in the bedroom and then abject terror yet again while singing the Willow song.

Maeve Larkin’s Emilia was similarly mixed. Mannered, wry and very still, she made an ideal waiting maid, and her matter-of-fact commentary provided the perfect antithesis to Desdemona’s sunny disposition. However, her speech and movement were too finely choreographed to be convincing. She continually addressed a fixed point in the middle distance, and her movement consisted of extremely precise steps and gestures in perfect synchronicity with her words, leaving her whole performance looking extremely artificial. This became a crucial weakness in the final scenes where her carefully controlled shouts and complaints were completely insufficient for the content and tone of her dire situation and overwhelming grief.

While the female characters grated, the remainder of the production was generally entertaining. The standout scene saw the evening revels turned into a drinking game of epic proportions, expertly choreographed and infectiously funny. The revellers arrived with brass and drums to sing the Cannikin song over and over again, each time passing a full tankard down the line of revellers, with he who held it at the end of the song obliged to down the whole cup. Much visual comedy was found in Cassio’s early attempts to avoid the cup by changing places in line, to no effect as the rest of the men conspired to make sure it kept returning to him. As the scene progressed, though, Cassio’s temper was allowed to slowly develop, each cup leaving him louder and more aggressive until his angry protestations of sobriety were countered by him falling offstage through a door. Extending this scene and giving Cassio time to build up to his attack on Roderigo was effective, and also allowed Iago to be seen working patiently at setting up his victims.

Costumes located the production in a broadly Edwardian period, though several outfits had additional resonances – the red berets of Iago and his fellow soldiers evoked modern military units such as the Black Watch, emphasised in Iago’s military manner, while the neckties and long skirts of the ladies are perhaps more associated with the American West, the practical outfits of working women in a man’s world. Ruari Murchison’s set, however, was Venice through and through, an enormous central pillar dividing a high stone balcony on one side from a series of tall slatted wooden doors on the other. These aside, the set was left empty apart from a series of architectural implements set up by Othello and Iago during the temptation scene, and the bed which took pride of place in the closing scenes.

As the publicity materials and broadsheet attention made abundantly clear, this was Lenny Henry’s production, and his performance stepped up to the mark, giving a straightforward and sympathetic reading of the Moor that heightened the tragedy of his story. However, a performance is nothing without the production to support it, and Broadsides didn’t fail to deliver. Despite some weaknesses in individual performances, Barrie Rutter’s direction and a wonderful pairing in the lead roles made for a no-nonsense and thoroughly effective straight telling of the play.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review