It’s not often that the Royal
Shakespeare Company is eclipsed on its home territory, but its touring
production of Othello
been thoroughly trumped in the news stakes by that of Barrie Rutter’s
Halifax-based Northern Broadsides company, which announced that the
title role in its Yorkshire-accented co-production would be played by
comedian Lenny Henry in his first straight stage role. Indeed,
Broadsides trumped the RSC twice with one blow: several London critics
(myself included) opted to come to Leeds for Henry’s press night rather
than to Stratford for the simultaneous opening of Antony Sher in the
So, is Henry worth the attention? Much of it, yes. There are still some
signs of his tendency to let his eyes do the talking, and his
(sometimes gabbled) vocal delivery owes an audible debt to James Earl
Jones, but this is certainly not the performance of a dilettante. He
treads a believable path from initial scenes in which Othello is
noticeably ill at ease in the company of the Venetian grandees yet
lights up and even grows playful in the company of Desdemona, through
Iago’s cultivation of his insecurity and into pathological jealousy. He
is aided by a strong display of malignity in Conrad Nelson’s Iago and a
lively Desdemona in Jessica Harris, off each of whom he plays well.
The audience, however, seems to expect more laughs in this tragedy, so
that even at the climax, Othello’s distracted line about the strangled
Desdemona “Not yet quite dead?” raised a chuckle on press night.
Matters are not helped in this respect by director Rutter’s performance
as her father Brabantio in the opening scenes, which (intentionally or
not) hams it up and gets laughs when he should be sowing the first
seeds of uncertainty in Othello’s mind. Nevertheless, it is a rare
production these days that does not cut the most thankless line in all
of Shakespeare to deliver to a modern audience, “O, bloody period!”
(meant in the sense of murder making a full stop), and rarer still to
hear it escape without even a snigger.
Kathryn Hunter, directing the RSC’s version (which I saw at Hackney
Empire), drags matters out to an unmerciful three and a half hours.
It’s not that the text is played slowly, but much is added to it. We
see Othello paying court to Desdemona amid a blend of grand opera and
at odds with his own account of the seduction a couple of scenes
later); we see a taverna-style piss-up to celebrate the victory at
Cyprus; above all, we see barrack-room cabaret sequences in which a
black-faced minstrel sings musical standards and mimes sexual congress
with a white Desdemona effigy, which then “gives birth” to a golliwog.
Hunter has very definitely returned the racism to the foreground. The
problem is that so little is made of it. If it is meant to indicate
brutal military humour rather than racial hostility (a defence peddled
in recent forces-racism news stories in Britain), then why bother? If,
on the other hand, it is intended to indicate real prejudice, why is
neither Othello nor the one black private in the company shown
responding significantly to it?
Patrice Naiambana’s Othello is serviceable, although his fit of
jealousy is on the ridiculous side and his final murder of Desdemona
strangely unmoving. This may in part be due to the lack of presence of
Natalia Tena’s Desdemona, who looks wonderful in a pair of camiknickers
but quite fails to engage with the role dramatically. Michael Gould’s
Iago shows the requisite villainy, but really has little to pit himself
against. Neither production is among the greats, but all told, score
one to the northern upstarts.
Written for the Financial