Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Henry swaps comedy for Shakespeare

Lenny Henry
Henry will tour the UK in Othello

By Caroline Briggs
Arts and culture reporter, BBC News

Comedian Lenny Henry turns tragic hero in Shakespeare's Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Growing up in the Midlands in the late 1960s did not set comedian Lenny Henry up for a life treading the boards. Far from it.

In his words, Shakespeare "didn't seem to be for working class kids in Dudley".

And sitting in the green room of West Yorkshire's Playhouse, where he has started a four-week run as Othello, Henry admits he is more than a little surprised to be there.

"Shakespeare came to us as kids via Romeo and Juliet," he explains.

"The books were given to us and we were told to read them. We didn't know it was a play, we didn't know it was sexy, we didn't know it had action.

Lenny Henry and Barrie Rutter
Henry is being directed in the role by Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides

"When you look at a Shakespeare text and all the footnotes and the little numbers by it, and the archaic language - the thou, dost, hast - it just feels like Chinese algebra or something. We just didn't get it.

"I wish they had told us it had action in it - like the Avengers or Doctor Who or Batman or something - because all that sword fighting is so romantic and swashbuckling.

"If only they had got us up, told us it was play, and you do this and you say that, we probably would have had a better experience of it, but we just read it."

If Henry is bitter about his formative introduction to the Bard, it doesn't show, and it hasn't stopped him approaching Shakespeare with childlike gusto in recent years.

Talking to Shakespearen stalwarts like Dame Judi Dench and Pattison Joseph, Henry was piqued by their passion.

He then spent 12 months studying the Bard for his BA in English Literature, devouring Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and Hamlet.

Lenny Henry talks about his new role

But it was his subsequent 2006 BBC Radio 4 documentary, Lenny and Will, which set him on the path to playing Othello.

The documentary included an interview with Barrie Rutter, the artistic director of Northern Broadsides - a company that presents the classics in a northern voice.

He directed Henry reading the final passage from Othello. At the time, Rutter says, he simply thought: "Ooo... there's something here".

"Len asked me 'could I do this?' and I said 'on the evidence of that, yeh. Let's do some more work on it,' says Rutter, who set up Northern Broadsides 17 years ago.

"And if I was ever going to do a Othello I needed a 50-year-old black man and there he was in front of me, and potentially very good, That's what I spotted."

Outsider

Over the past five weeks Rutter has also seen Henry transform himself physically and mentally to play Shakespeare's betrayed Moorish general.

He spent three months beefing up in the gym, and worked on his "deep and melodious" voice, which Henry describes as "standard English with hints of African". There is only a small betrayal of his Dudley roots.

Henry spends the first half of the play being a noble man of stature. In the second he is on the move. He is furious, enraged, perplexed and determined. He cheerily admits the role is "demanding".

FAMOUS OTHELLOS
Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith as Othello and Desdemona
1961 - Sir John Gielgud
1964 - Sir Laurence Olivier
1985 - Ben Kingsley
1999 - Ray Fearon

And Othello, Shakespeare's isolated outsider, is a role Henry identifies with.

Racism was a daily ordeal at his school, and he was often the only black person in the room when he toured the unforgiving club circuit in the early 1970s.

Even in acting circles, Henry explains, he often felt like he was outside looking in.

"Northern Broadside have made me feel welcomed into the Shakespearean circle, whereas before I felt it was not for me.," he says.

"Now I think its is actually feel it is for me and for anyone who wants to enjoy it. These are universal plays with universal themes - love, loss, betrayal, hatred, envy, poverty, wealth.

"It's incredibly exciting - I'm way out of my comfort zone - but I really like it there."

Proud

After winning New Faces in 1976, Henry's comfort zone has always centred around comedy, introducing characters like soul singer Theophilus P Wildebeeste, and Brixton wideboy Delbert Wilkins, to our TV screens.

MORE FROM IPLAYER
Behind the scenes with Radio 4's documentary Lenny Henry Plays Othello
The view from Radio 4's Arts programme Front Row

More serious roles have included the BBC's Hope and Glory, but for the past 32 years making people laugh has been his thing.

So why, at the age of 50, would he dive head first into such a huge challenge? Hamlet and King Lear excepted, there is no deeper end in Shakespeare than Othello.

"I think it's good to try something new," he says simply.

"I love comedy but the rut that you stay in eventually becomes a grave and I think you've got to keep moving otherwise you'll keel over and that will be that."

He adds: "It may not be THE Othello, but it's my Othello, and that's what I'm proud of. I'm proud to have got here."


Othello will visit theatres in Scarborough, Coventry, Bath, Kingston, Newcastle Under Lyme and Halifax in April and May.



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