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Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light — Iago
Conrad Nelson as Iago and Lenny Henry as Othello
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Over the past fifteen years, Northern Broadsides have quietly carved out an impressive reputation for earthy, grounded productions which feature clarity, energy and very often Northern accents. Their approach is not only no nonsense, but also forbids frippery, clutter and theatrical snobbery. It was therefore quite surprising that they chose a celebrity comedian, who had never acted on stage before and whose opinion of the bard was largely a leftover of schoolboy antipathy, to tackle one of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes. However, unconstrained by thoughts of elitism, they elected Lenny Henry, the well-loved and self-styled "Jamaican from Dudley" to metamorphose himself into the Moor of Venice.

The unexpected incongruity of this casting creates a frisson of bafflement and anticipation which sits effectively with Othello's stage persona of renown, charisma and presence. When Lenny Henry first appears on stage, it is immediately apparent that, physically, he is incredibly well-suited to the martial general. He towers over the rest of the cast and effortlessly picks up his bride, whilst his deep, resonant voice speaks Shakespeare's text clearly and understandably.

The emphasis of his Othello is as a trusting innocent, unable to conceive of others' deceit and machinations. Therefore, his jealousy and downfall pitifully arise from his own good nature. His descent into mistrust and emotional disintegration might have been navigated with more subtlety but is still convincingly, if somewhat savagely, handled. For a Shakespeare virgin, Lenny Henry does a more than decent job and I suspect he will improve even further during the course of the tour.

Conrad Nelson's Iago of concentrated malevolence is a perfect foil to Henry's expansive, generous-spirited Othello. As dour and pragmatic as you could wish from a blunt Iago, his exposition of the fatal plot is both lucid and chilling. With unnervingly calm hand gestures, he suggests how he puppeteers the other characters and, laughing throughout the denouement, he is a force of dispassionate, almost inhuman malignancy.

The other actors in this sturdy ensemble provide handsome support: Barrie Rutter's own emphatic Brabantio, and Richard Standing's Cassio who conveys both fine manners with sense until, of course, the drink sets in. Matt Connor's pallid Roderigo is nicely linked to the "wealthy curled darlings" of Venice and Jessica Harris' Desdemona is a piping, childish and giggling heroine.

With a tall dark set of close-knit mahogany shutters, there is a sombre and stately, almost funereal sense of space. The Georgian costumes, in russets, browns and burgundy, provide little colour relief and there is the feeling that this unalleviated tragedy is set in a dark but formal public space.

Vigorous and muscular, this Othello enjoys Barrie Rutter's trademark direction full of movement and integrity. Taking a successful punt with unusual and risky casting, this production manages to unite the company's northern grit with the sparkle of Lenny Henry to create a brutally cogent tragedy.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Barrie Rutter
Presented by Northern Broadsides and West Yorkshire Playhouse

Starring: Lenny Henry
With: Conrad Nelson, Matt Connor, Barrie Rutter, Richard Standing, Fine Time Fontayne, Holland Roberts, Jessica Harris, Andy Cryer, Maeve Larkin, Chris Pearse, Rachel Jane Allen
Composer: Conrad Nelson
Designer: Ruari Murchison
Costume Designer: Stephen Snell
Lighting Designer: Guy Hoare
Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0871 230 1552
Booking to 25th April 2009 at the Rose Theatre, Kingston and then on tour to the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme 28th April to 2 May (box office: 01782 717962) and the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax 5th to 10th May (box office: 01422 255 266)
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 21st April 2009 performance at The Rose Theatre, 24-26 High Street, Kingston, KT1 (Train: Kingston Upon Thames)
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