May 6th, 2009

Othello: Northern Broadsides: Halifax

This is how I like to see Shakespeare done- with a full text, fast, on a naked stage- and without too much in the way of directorial interpretation. Shakespeare doesn't need interpreting. It's all there in the text. Play it straight, trusting the words- and an interpretation will emerge.

Northern Broadsides is Barry Rutter's baby. He directed this production, played Brabantio- and stood around in the aisles chatting to the audience before the performance. The gimmick- if it is a gimmick- is that he recruits actors from the north of England and asks them to use their own accents. More to the point he recruits good actors and trains them well. Pound for pound and talent for talent, this is a stronger company than the RSC. The last two productions I've seen at Stratford were let down by rotten performances- even in key roles. Last night's Othello had acting in depth. Even the understudy who played Bianca was terrific.

This production grabbed the headlines with the novelty casting of Lenny Henry-   funny man of yester-year- as Othello. He was tremendous. He has physical presence, a rich, dark voice- and handles the verse like he's been speaking it all his life. It's a nuanced performance; he has the strength, he has the vulnerability. Now I want to see his Antony, his Macbeth, his Claudius. He is matched by Conrad Nelson's shapeshifting Iago- one moment the coarse, bantering squaddie, the next a venom-spitting basilisk. He has teeth- and knows how to use them. In all the Othellos I've seen to date one of the two protagonists has always over-topped the other. This is the first from which they emerge with equal honours.