I can’t have been the only person who viewed the Northern Broadsides/West Yorkshire Playhouse’s casting of Lenny Henry as Othello as leaden with potential for a truly disastrous theatre spectacle, a respected regional company sacrificing its hard won integrity in favour of celebrity- and novelty-driven audiences.
I also can’t gave been the only one who was subsequently surprised to read that he was actually garnering pretty solid reviews. Charles Spencer in the Telegraph said it was “one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen”. Mr Billingham in the Guardian saw in Henry a “simple dignity to his performance that touches one”.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. This production is not a disaster, but neither is it really terribly compelling or interesting. All kudos to Lenny Henry for taking on something very challenging and well beyond the call of duty for a bone fide National Treasure, but let’s call a spade a spade: this show is, at best, passably competent and, at worst, pretty embarrassing.
Henry is fine, but by no means impressive. His physicality, his relative size and his powerful activity on stage, is compelling but he garbles his lines incomprehensibly and in this his underconfidence is palpable.
He is supported ably by Conrad Nelson, playing Iago, who is the indoubted star of the production, brimming with intelligence and interesting approaches to familiar lines – and with the added benefit of being audible to the audience. It would be difficult to imagine a more unexceptional Desdemona than Jessica Harris and most of the other characters come across as flat and uninteresting.
The main problem with this Othello isn’t the cast, however, but the utter vacuum in which they operate. There is not a single identifiable directorial choice in this production, by which I don’t mean that it is slick and effortless, but that is bland and uninteresting. Those choices which are evident are wrong: all the male characters look the same, making them unidentifiable to even someone who knows the play; the combat scenes are unimpressive; the set is uninspired, bland enough to serve for any Shakespeare. A director who spent the whole rehearsal period shouting “SPEAK SLOWER! NOBODY CAN HEAR YOU!” would have been a start, but we didn’t even have that, let alone somebody to stamp their own vision on this classic.
This is by no means a catastrophe, and Lenny Henry’s performance is no joke, but it is, at best, a pretty weak production – the fact that it all could have been a lot worse doesn’t really justify the ticket price.