By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Saturday, October 3, 2009
A Black leader in a white-dominated world; a charismatic, powerful commander resisting prejudices and stereotypes to achieve greatness. No, this is not Barack Obama’s America, but Britain’s Northern Broadsides timely depiction of William Shakespeare's classic drama of tragedy, tension and jealousy.
It recalls the ugly racism that has been part of the European society and culture for several centuries; but it could easily be a parable of our times. And Lenny Henry in his Shakespeare debut, with 30-plus years in the entertainment industry, knows what it means to be a minority of one.
Of all the dramatic or classic roles to take on – Henry the much loved performer, chose a legendary one - already illuminated by the likes of Laurence Olivier (in the days of 'blacking up'), as well as Paul Robeson and Orson Welles.
Although he can never bring the reputation, magnetism and history of his illustrious predecessors to the role, Henry’s performance is neither cowardly, nor overawed. For sure it’s difficult to perceive of the comic as other than a big personality - his face and demeanour is one for comedy not drama - but in the title role he is commanding and sincere, towering above his co-stars in size and performance. Despite these weaknesses - the veteran performer knows his way around the stage, which he commands impressively by sheer strength of personality.
With a full Trafalgar Studios and in the space of this near three-hour production, Henry the comedian, moved from carefree nonchalance to raging anger - displaying enraged jealousy and violent psychosis. With a deep and resonant baritone – at times subtle, and often with textured nuance - Henry’s delivery of this classic prose is on point.
For those with an allergy to Shakespeare (Henry admits to being one), the dialogue is not always easy to follow, but Barrie Rutter’s direction is innovative and thoughtful, using props sparingly whilst taking full advantage of stage doors overlooking the Trafalgar Studio’s high ceilinged arena.
A classic of English literature it may well be, but it is soap opera fare in truth, with the sparkling words igniting the narrative. Othello’s apparent ally - Iago - creates a schism between Othello and Desdemona, his wife, using gossip and rumours to achieve his aims. The backstory is the opposition of Brabantio, the father of Othello’s wife - and the jealousy of a rival suitor – the weak-willed Roderigo.
Since taking this production on the road in February, the ensemble of mostly northern English actors bring their own style (Victorian dress and homely pet names) to the well known characters, but never lose sight of the essence of the play; envy, resentment - and the manipulation of these volatile emotions to murderous effect.
The Moor’s chemistry with Desdemona played by Jessica Harris, is a little unrealistic - she seems far too young and delicate for this giant of a man, and some plot twists and turns do seem dated in the contemporary world of complex story lines and jumpcut narratives.
Henry is possibly outdone by an unforgettable Conrad Nelson in a menacing performance in the pivotal role of Iago - snide and malicious, plotting and conniving. From the start, Othello’s envious lieutenant is manipulative and sneering – all snide remarks and red-faced anger - swaggering, calculating and spiteful. His asides to the audience, and soliloquies, delivered with scowling aggression and hatred.
In this ugly atmosphere, Designer Ruari Murchison has created an austere, sombre, stern and obsidian environment of black Venetian blinds and block panelled doors, which perfectly fit the dark sentiments which steer this play to its fatal conclusion.
With suspense and tension maintained right to the very end, this production brings Shakespeare’s very relevant classic to a modern audience.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY
until 12 December 2009
Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Image: Tristram Kenton