Lenny Henry never saw himself performing Shakespeare on the West End stage, yet he has been playing Othello all his life, he tells Caroline Bishop.
Lenny Henry has been in a funny kind of limbo this summer. This month he brings his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello to the West End, four months after he completed the show’s initial run at West Yorkshire Playhouse and its subsequent tour. Petrified of forgetting the lines, Henry has been reciting the play in his head every day since the last performance in May. “You’d see me walking round Boots going ‘Had it pleased heaven to try me with affliction – can I have the shampoo please love? – had they rain’d all kinds of sores and shames on my bare head – have you got change for a 20?’” he says with a chuckle down the phone from his home in Cornwall.
It is a familiar laugh, accompanying a familiar style of speech – rapidly delivered and peppered with an assortment of comedy accents, loud noises and gentle jokes – that we know from his presence on our television screens for over 30 years, since he was first discovered as a young impressionist on New Faces. We know him as a stand-up comedian, as the long-time champion of Comic Relief, as an actor on mainstream television and film, but not as a Shakespearean stage actor. That is a new one on us.
It was a new one on him, too, which was why the rehearsal period for his dramatic stage debut as Othello for Northern Broadsides found him “not sleeping for a month and having insomnia and high blood pressure and being so scared; the methane count in the theatre the first few nights was quite possibly the highest it has ever been. It was just very, very frightening. And then once we got on [to the stage] it was fantastic, I just relaxed and loved it. And how weird is that, that rehearsals can do that for you?”
He sounds genuinely surprised. A lot has been a surprise for Henry, who turned 51 last week, during this whole new experience. He is used to the environs of television comedy, which, he tells me, doesn’t have the same kind of rehearsal process. He has had to learn to speak verse, to know where to take a breath, to focus and to resist the comedian’s urge to comment on the guy snoring in the third row. “When you are working in the round, what’s really interesting is you’re really close to the audience so if there’s someone waving their foot very annoyingly in your eye-line, it’s very tempting to just reach over and grab the foot and just hold it still,” he says. “People behave so oddly in the theatre, and it’s so weird to be in something where you can’t comment.”
“The methane count in the theatre the first few nights was quite possibly the highest it has ever been”
His transformation into classical stage actor can be credited to Barrie Rutter, Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, who persuaded Henry to finally accept a dramatic role on stage – he has appeared on London stages before as a stand-up – something he had been offered in the past and always turned down “because I couldn’t get my head round spending six months in the theatre”.
Judging by the reviews from the run in Leeds, Rutter’s punt on the comedian has paid off. Henry says he didn’t read his notices – though wife Dawn French kept a running scorecard for him – but “I do know that people went expecting a car crash and came out having experienced something quite different, and I’m glad about that.” In fact Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph gushed “This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen”.
Perhaps his success is testament to the fact that Henry is used to tackling new things. “Everything I’ve ever done I think I’ve been chucked into the deep end to see if I would swim,” he says. “As a comedian, I’d never done comedy before and suddenly there I was, at 16 years old, going on stage in a mining club in Doncaster with people reading the newspaper, you know. This seems to be my life.”
But it took until he was 50 and a particular set of circumstances – “the stars were aligned” – for Henry to try his hand at classical acting. Those circumstances are partly self-induced; in the past decade the comedian has set about giving himself the further education he never had, since leaving school at the age of 16. A BA in English Literature from the Open University, completed part time over six years, has turned his schoolboy attitude to Shakespeare on its head. “I’ve suddenly [gone from] ‘oh I don’t like Shakespeare very much’ to having a hierarchy of Shakespearean plays that I like; [that] was a massive hurdle that had been overcome in the last 10 years,” he says.
“My mum was sick for seven years and I was able to help pay for care for her; these are the things that are important”
He had been offered the part of Othello before and he knew the play well due to his role in 1991 film True Identity, in which he played an actor understudying James Earl Jones as the Moor. But it was the combination of his OU degree and meeting Northern Broadside’s Rutter that finally convinced Henry that Shakespeare could be for him. “I still had an aversion to Shakespeare, I still had a kind of ‘oh it will be all talking funny and they’re all posh and you have to wear tights’; I still had all that going on. But once I’d met Barrie Rutter, who immediately took away my fear of Shakespeare because it’s not for people like me, it’s not for toe rags from Dudley, suddenly Shakespeare is universal, it’s for you wherever you’re from, whatever your mum and dad were, whatever they did for a living.”
Now, he waxes lyrical about the universality of Othello and the resonance it has with modern social issues; with knife crime, jealousy, racism, mixed-race relationships and soldiers at war. The story of a black man having to prove himself in a white man’s world is also something that resonates with Henry personally. “It’s bizarre; I feel like I’ve been growing up in this role my whole life,” he says. “I started off as a kid from a working class family who, because of a talent show, ended up being the only black person most places I went. Every performance, in a certain period of my life, was me going on in a predominantly white environment and having to win an entire audience over, and Othello’s whole life was like that.”
Henry’s childhood was lived in a time when Othello was played by blacked-up white men – Henry watched Olivier’s 1965 performance numerous times while preparing for True Identity – and a television variety show with white actors playing stereotyped black southern minstrels won the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux and earned viewing figures of 16 million.
Henry says he looks back on that part of his life “in confusion”. He became a second spot comic on the touring stage version of the now derided Black And White Minstrel Show in 1975 as a teenager, fresh from New Faces and looking to get his foot on the ladder in comedy. “I was slightly a political football at the time, I think, and I had no idea. My experience of The Black And White Minstrels was it was something on the telly, and I had no idea of the political implications of me being in it, for a while actually.”
He had a good relationship with the producer of the stage show, theatrical impresario Robert Luff – who died earlier this year – and it was only when he had been in the show for some time that those implications dawned on Henry. “He basically said ‘be in the Minstrel Show because it will be good experience for you and you’ll play all the big houses in Britain and you won’t be exposed because you’re only doing 12 minutes and they are there to see the minstrels anyway’. That was the thinking. Whereas a grown up would have said ‘yeah, but you see that I’m a black person and maybe I shouldn’t be in a show where people are blacking up?’, a 16-year-old went ‘yeah alright then’, slightly scared, slightly not knowing why we were doing it but doing it anyway.”
He talks about that time openly, but there is a touch of sadness in his voice for the younger self who didn’t quite realise what he was getting into. Nevertheless, Henry says the direction he took next, which made him a household name, owes something to that controversial beginning. “I think probably quite a lot of things, post ‘79, which was the last time I did the Minstrels Show, everything was a rebellion against that, so my involvement in alternative comedy, my involvement in late night rock ‘n’ roll style comedy with Phil McIntyre, doing the kind of things I do, seeking out some kind of meaning, all of those things are a rebellion against what I did in the early part of my career.”
“People behave so oddly in the theatre, and it’s so weird to be in something where you can’t comment”
Henry became one of the few black British comedians on television screens in the 1980s, his eponymous sketch show making his name in the mainstream and leading to a career that has included comedy series Chef!, drama serial Hope And Glory, films, documentaries and countless appearances for Comic Relief, which he helped establish. As one of the most recognisable black personalities of the era, he arguably paved the way for a new generation of black talent.
I ask him if he is proud of his achievements and he says immediately: “I got my mum a house. That’s a massive thing to do when you are from Dudley and you worked in a factory and people were saying, ‘well I don’t know what you are going to amount to but probably not much’. So the fact that I bought my mum a house, my mum was sick for seven years and I was able to help pay for care for her, these are the things that are important.”
He also lists bringing up his and fellow comedian French’s adopted daughter, Billie, and the Cornish house he shares with them, among the most important achievements his career has helped facilitate, as well as his education, of which he says his late mother would be particularly proud. He is continuing his studies with an MA in screenwriting and is already thinking of the next challenge to present his insatiable thirst for learning.
Henry currently seems to be on a mission of self-improvement and given his experience in throwing himself in at the deep end there seems no reason why he can’t go on charting unknown waters, not least, on the stage. “A girl’s got to be asked,” he jokes, “but I would love to work at the Royal Court and the Royal Exchange and I’d like to do more acting in the West End.”
“I never ever thought I would be doing a Shakespeare play,” he concludes. “I never thought I would be doing an MA. These things were not on the cards for me, but now, suddenly they are.”