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.
Saw this last night and also went to the pre-show talk during which Lenny said that the production would be in London from mid-Sept to mid-December. Google tells me this will be at the Trafalgar Studios.
People have been willing to give him credit, in relative terms, for doing fairly well for what is his first theatre performance of any type. I would have to agree with that. But in absolute terms he scrapes a pass rather than achieving any type of honours.
Once I’d got past the idea that here was a stand-up doing a competent job of Shakespearean tragedy, I was struck by what he lacks. He lacks a variety of dramatic expression, what I call acting ‘gears’. He’s rather like a bicycle with three gears rather than the 12 you need to handle a variety of terrain with comfort. This meant that he often switched from low gear to high gear abruptly and sometimes was in the completely the wrong gear for the level of ascent involved.
He was at his best in soliloquy, possibly because these passages are the easiest to rehearse in isolation and which do not require so much reaction to others in the cast. The speaking of text sounded to my inexpert ears perfectly competent: he had the rhythm and pacing bang on to the extent I felt he understood exactly the import of each word. He somehow felt comfortable taking a commanding position to speak alone, again possibly because this is a mode of performance with which he is most at ease.
But I didn’t believe his remorse at Desdemona’s death. It was here right at the end when experienced actors bring a career of experience to a moment, that we were left wanting.
The Iago was excellent and while I found Desdemona to be a bit flat, I wondered afterwards whether this was just the result of the director telling her to play Desdemona as being a bit simple. She was in direct contrast to the more mature and brave Emilia and it was possible this contrast was deliberately highlighted.
The direction seemed to prioritise an unfussy simplicity of storytelling with no real ambitions to make ‘art’, whatever that is.
I loved the drinking game, the white chalk cloud (oohs from the audience) and the didn’t-see-that-coming dagger hidden in the bed post. The production is sold out at the Rose Kingston, which it needs, and the large number of young people in the audience was good to see, with only a minor amount of chatter (“ooh he’s killed his wife!”) and snacking.
During the curtain call, Conrad Nelson steppred forward at Lenny’s invitation and was soundly booed; the audience then cheering Lenny as he took his bow next with a satisfied grin.
Just heard that tickets for the London run at the Trafalgar Studios go on sale, tomorrow, Friday at 9am:
Whether I book will depend on ticket price, but I am keen to see how he improves by the end of the year.
Hmm. I can see where you’re coming from about Henry’s performance, but what you construe as a lack of range, I read very much as a deliberate decision – a restrained, dignified and limited range performance in order to contrast with the manic energy of Iago, a choice which I thought was hugely effective.
I am deeply concerned though, Duncan, about an aspect of your comment which appears to be extremely offensive. Quote “To the extent I felt he understood exactly the import of each word”. In what circumstances, exactly, would you expect a professional actor NOT to understand the importance and implications of his words? The very fact you’ve said this suggests surprise; or, to paraphrase, “Gosh, he actually sounded like he understood what he was saying!”. Its a statement which seems to suggest that you view Henry as either stupid, unprofessional or ill-prepared, and were pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case. If so, that’s a worryingly limited and patronising view; if not, I’d suggest you retract or qualify what you meant.
I can think of a good example of a professional actor who did just that. Tamsin Greig spoke lines she didn’t really understand when playing Beatrice in Much Ado for the RSC. The director cottoned on to this during the Stratford run and suggested to her that she simply cut the lines in question for the London run, which she duly did.
And she won an Olivier award for that performance!
Consequently, I feel quite justified in praising Lenny for having a better grasp of his text than Olivier-winner Tamsin had of hers.
I should have explained further that Lenny’s mastery of the text in performance is, in my opinion, partly due to his academic background in Shakespeare gained from his Open University degree. That qualification gives him an advantage over a non-academic jobbing actor with just a short rehearsal period to familiarise themselves with a text.
Not all actors have degrees in English literature. The one I saw Wednesday did, and was obviously applying that in his work.
My criticism of his performance is not so much about a lack of range – he did sad, he did happy, he did angry – but more a lack of gradation, of shade and subtlety. It is no insult to him to say that his acting craft is not as sophisticated as that of more trained and experienced performers. And those gaps in his ability were on show.
The reason I’ve been harsh is that I hope for the sake of his future acting career – and I’m sure he has one – that he is equally critical of himself, because he will only improve with that spur in his side.
In that respect I’m just here to help.
I’d be interested to know how you thought this production compared with the Kathryn Hunter earlier in the year. I agree with Duncan that it was a direct and simple re-telling and for that reason I found the Hunter interpretation more conplex and the interpretation more stimulating. What didi you think?
Good question! I’ve kept my reviews of the two separate until now. Both productions had their strengths and weaknesses. On balance, I personally preferred the Broadsides interpretation overall – I found the Othello/Iago dynamic far more interesting and powerful, allowing that to power the play where, in the RSC, I felt Naiambana’s Othello was too dominant. His Othello had more depth as a character study, but at the cost of the narrative drive and the rest of the company. However, I wish the Broadsides production had taken some of the risks that the RSC did. I didn’t feel that everything the RSC tried worked, but points for the attempt, and when the experimentation worked it was often wonderful – Brabantio and Desdemona sharing the ‘Willow’ scene, for example, was something I found particularly powerful.
On Duncan’s earlier note that Elaine references, “The direction seemed to prioritise an unfussy simplicity of storytelling with no real ambitions to make ‘art’, whatever that is.”- that’s very much Broadsides’ modus operandi, providing straightforward, honest Shakespeare without a lot of faff. Combined with their extensive regional touring, they’re a company I hugely admire in their dedication to bringing Shakespeare to new audiences, and in that sense the unfussiness of a production like this is extremely laudable. However, as someone who sees a great many productions, I have to say it’s the Kathryn Hunter’s of this world who keep me most interested.