So here’s the story so far. A couple of years ago (god, a couple of years! what have I been doing with my life?) it was announced that Lenny Henry would play Othello on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This was a great lark obviously, because it was clearly going to be a train wreck: 20 episodes of Chef! in the 1990s do not generally qualify one to take on one of the greatest tragic roles in the English theatrical canon, whether you’re a national treasure or not.
And then people went to see the play – and it turned out that it wasn’t a disaster. He wasn’t terrible. He was actually pretty good. The idea of him being a real actor wasn’t some weird joke cooked up in Yorkshire to squeeze pennies out of punters. It transferred to London. And he got some pretty good reviews even if their tone – perhaps mine included – was slightly haughty, praising him for “extending his range” but making it clear that his success was due only to pretty low expectations going in.
Here we are two years later, and Lenny Henry is back – in Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. And this time there can be no suggestion that the casting is cheap or opportunistic; the expectations going in will be higher. Thankfully, this production and everything in it – including Lenny Henry – soars.
It’s an absolutely baffling play on paper (I’m not even going to attempt a precis here) and as such a production concept has to work and work hard – thankfully, Dominic Cooke’s focus on the city and its teeming anonymous multidude works beautifully. It’s a concept-heavy production (the Duke is a east-end gangster – that sort of thing, you get the idea) but it never feels weighed down by it nor does it ever feel like the play is bending to fit the theme. Having seen it done this way, it becomes impossible to imagine that any other interpretation could work.
The entire production feels infused with energy, life and comedy. Whether it’s the arrival of the Corinthian ship in the prologue or the full energy comic chase scene, there’s never a missed opportunity to surprise and delight. Even in this preview performance all of the complex physical comedy is slick.
Cooke’s work is made a lot easier by the design by the ever-excellent Bunny Christie. We’d expect nothing less than superb from her and the National team, but this design is really quite something. Vast but nimble, it effortlessly evokes everything from disused warehouses to yuppy flats, and red light districts to Harley Street grandeur.
The actors playing the Antipholuses (Henry and Chris Jarman) and Dromios (Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser) have most of the hard work to do here – and they do it very well – but it’s most obviously an impressive ensemble piece. Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry particularly spring to mind for their TOWIE-style turns as Adriana and Luciana; and Amit Shah and Silas Carson as the Angelo and Balthasar double act were also fun to watch.
Which brings us back, I suppose, to Lenny Henry. What’s notable about his performance here is that it doesn’t feel out of place at all. It’s not a celebrity on stage playing a role clearly too big for him. It’s just an accomplished actor delivering a very credible performance in an excellent production.
(PS This was a preview)