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Othello starring Lenny Henry

Published 21 September 2009

What can you do with a BA in English? The puppets of Avenue Q may wonder, but Lenny Henry has found a purpose. After completing his OU degree the comedian who admitted he didn’t get Shakespeare as a schoolboy now makes his dramatic stage debut as Othello.

He has the physical presence for it. He towers over the other cast members in Barrie Rutter’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Not only is he tall but he has the broad chest, powerful arms and booming voice of someone who cannot be ignored. It is easy to understand why his Othello is a respected soldier and a leader of men; it is also easy to see that his wrath would be feared, that the gentle behemoth who can pick Desdemona up with one arm could exert a frightening physical power if provoked.

It is therefore down to Iago to use this to his advantage, though perhaps even he does not quite realise what he will unleash with his underhand, devious verbal provocations. Red-
faced and narrow-eyed, Conrad Nelson paints a suitably unsympathetic portrait of this jealous, racist, odious man, who plants the seeds of doubt over Desdemona’s fidelity in her husband’s mind. At times he verges on pantomime villain with his asides to the audience and his outbursts of rage.

Iago’s jaded relationship with his wife, Sara Poyzer’s Emilia, is in stark contrast to the hearts and flowers shared by newlyweds Othello and Desdemona at the start of the drama. Yet, sadly, theirs is the more realistic partnership; as Othello so quickly falls foul of Iago’s persistent poisoning, the romance of the Moor’s marriage is shattered to reveal the lack of foundations beneath. As ever, you wonder why Othello has so little faith in the wife he professes to love so much.

Poyzer injects Emilia with the right amount of bitterness and cynicism, while Jessica Harris is a suitably innocent-looking Desdemona, though perhaps lacking some of the passion that must exist in her to have defied her father in marrying Othello.

Rutter’s production has some amusing moments before tragedy ensues, particularly a scene in which the soldiers partake in a drinking game that would not be out of place in a university bar. 

But this production is about its flawed hero, who Henry injects with a presence that befits a soldier of his rank and honour. It is a shame that he does not choose to swat the scheming Iago like a fly.



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