West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 14 February - 14 March 2009
There is one name which dominates the cast list for this new production of Othello from Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides, and one figure who physically dominates the stage.
That person is, of course, Lenny Henry in the lead role and we must start with his performance.
In interviews, the affable, ever-smiling Henry has said that it makes sense for a comic to play a tragic role – especially one which ends in a kind of madness – because there is such a fine line between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry.
It is fascinating to note, then, that Henry is actually at his best here not when he is raving at his wife Desdemona under the influence of that “green-eyed monster”, but when he is quiet and contemplative.
Technically this is far from a perfect performance – his diction fails at times, and he stumbles over a few lines – but Henry’s Othello is certainly commanding, authoritarian and engaging throughout. It is the stark contrast against this huge presence which makes his final death-bed speech, understated and calmly resigned to his fate, his most impressive moment.
Away from the headline-grabbing star turn, there are two great performances from Conrad Nelson as a writhing, lizard-like Iago and Maeve Larkin as his wife Emilia. Nelson’s Iago is not a cold calculating plotter, but revels laughingly in the chaos he creates. He impishly darts from victim to victim, pouring pestilence in their ear with a smile on his face and a friendly slap on the arm. He even grins – admittedly menacingly – when the game is up, and his schemes and treachery are uncovered.
Emilia is here the true moral centre of the play, a heroic figure who uncovers her husband’s “villainy”, shouts it to the world without a moment’s hesitation, and fearlessly faces down Othello at the height of his rage. Jessica Harris’s Desdemona, on the other hand, is a tiny, fragile thing. Physically she is a wonderful contrast to Henry, who throws her up in the air in a loving embrace at the start of the play, and about the stage with brutal violence at the end, but her childish mannerisms can sometimes be more irritating than endearing.
Unfortunately, these generally good performances are played out in the distinctly sterile environment of a dull, black stage. The actors are left to create all of the tension and interest for themselves, and there is no need for that to be the case: the set and lighting offer little to the production, and as such the play overall suffers from a strange lack of atmosphere.Lenny Henry’s debut is solid – genuinely affecting at times - in a solid production. It is just a shame, then, that there is no real spark, no little twist of invention that would transform the play from the professional to the unmissable.