Touring, seen at Hackney Empire / West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds and touring
14 / 18 February, 2009
*** / ***

It’s not often that the Royal Shakespeare Company is eclipsed on its home territory, but its touring production of Othello has 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 RSC’s Tempest.

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 African mbira music (entirely 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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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