Saturday, 21 February 2009

Othello - West Yorkshire Playhouse

Othello by William Shakespeare
Director: Barrie Rutter
Reviewer: Ali Noble

The flurry of excitement around the new production of ‘Othello’ playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been brought about by the casting of comedian Lenny Henry in the title role - his first ever stage role. It seemed an odd choice, and the theatre was at full capacity, the audience waiting keenly to see how Henry would fare.

‘Othello’ is a hard play to pull off. The original text is long, and the director must carefully piece his performance together: maintaining the action whilst explaining fully what’s happening, and making the progression from one event to another smooth and believable. I remember seeing a production in Nottingham some time ago and my overwhelming memory of the play was that it went on and on and on - a drawn-out, protracted and boring affair.

I’m pleased to say that Rutter’s version left a much better impression. Lenny Henry gave an impressive performance - even more so for the fact that he is not a stage actor, and had never studied Shakespeare. His first few lines in the first scene were hurried, but he soon settled into the role, and truly held the play together. The play was at its most dynamic when Henry was on stage, and his presence towered over the cast, stage and audience.

In terms of other stand-out performances, I loved Matt Connor’s portrayal of Roderigo, whose pathetic weaseliness was brilliant to watch; Fine Time Fontayne as Brabantio (the father of Desdemona, who is devastated that his daughter has secretly-wed Othello) is very real and relatable; and Maeve Larkin’s Emilia shone in the final scene, as her realisation of all that has passed floods over her and is unleashed in an almighty misery-stricken anger that sends chills down the spine.

The set was blackened and bare, which at times seemed too empty, but worked perfectly during the final “death-bed” scene, when a white four-poster bed was positioned on stage, and becomes piled with the bodies and blood of the slain. Costumes were based loosely on 1850’s dress and military garb, their bright colours nicely framed by the black set.

The problem with ‘Othello’ is that Othello isn’t actually the main part - it is Iago who underpins all the action in the play. And whilst Conrad Nelson as Iago performed well, my expectations were not entirely sated. Iago is without doubt the hardest part to play in ‘Othello’ - he must be loathsome enough to be a liar and a murderer, and at the same time the audience must believe that the other characters like and trust him. Nelson made Iago a lads’ lad, ‘matey’ and familiar with those he wishes to manipulate, which worked well in the ‘drinking-game’ scene, where Iago gets Cassio drunk, knowing that his intoxication will cause a violent temper. But this approach is more problematic when Iago induces Othello’s jealousy - the latter’s rapid descent into green-eyed rage is hard to equate with Iago’s actions, and not quite so plausible.

Nice musical and comedic elements helped the play along, and Iago’s menacing soliloquies throughout set the undertone of foreboding. The play finished to rapturous applause. The fate of all productions of ‘Othello’ is that they will be compared to those architypal stagings starring Ian McKellen, or Chiwetel Ejiofor. But this seems unfair. This performance stands by itself, and should be enjoyed for what it is - a worthy and creditable production.

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Othello runs at the WYP until 14th March 2009
This production is sold out - Returns only
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