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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The RSC’s Othello

There has been much talk and speculation about the Lenny Henry Othello at the Leeds Playhouse, so much so that the current touring production from the Royal Shakespeare Company has tended to get a little lost.

Nevertheless we found ourselves in Newcastle yesterday and made our way over to Northern Stage to see this play, which has never really offered comfortable viewing.

It deals with racism, jealousy, domestic violence and revenge, and often leaves one with a feeling of rage and some incomprehension at the heartlessness and waste of human life which, for a few brief hours, becomes our world.

But this production, for various reasons, did not work for me. Kathryn Hunter, the director, decided to introduce song and dance routines into the action, and although these were fine in themselves, they detracted from, rather than added to the ongoing narrative of the play. A blacked-up Minstrel singing Are You Lonely Tonight may well be in bad taste, but the real sin is in placing it at the centre of a tragedy which works perfectly well without additional gimmicks.

Michael Gould as Iago more or less gets away with his humourless portrayal of a dullard who, miraculously, seems to be an apt student of human nature.

But Patrice Naiambana’s characterization of Othello only works in flashes. He has little trouble convincing us of his love for Desdemona, or of his ability to lead his men, or, indeed, of his great nobility. But he falls for Iago’s trickery far too easily, and is then completely unreasonable in his jealous rages, allowing himself to be reduced to the state of a slighted child. To a large extent the play depends on the audience being able to empathise and have sympathy with Othello, but well before the end we were ceasing to care about his predicament.

Natalia Tena was a delightful Desdemona. And Marcello Magni as Roderigo lit up the stage whenever he was on it.

The set by Liz Cooke was ambitious and appeared challenging, for the cast, in its many transformations. But it was good to watch and usually provided convincing and adequate spaces for the action of the play.

7 Responses to “The RSC’s Othello”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    Yes, people do get in a tizzy about comedians thinking they can be real actors and yet many have gone before Henry and not fallen flat on their faces, Max Wall in Beckett, Charlie Drake in Pinter, John Cleese in Shakespeare, in films Eric Sykes in ‘The Others’ and Ronnie Barker in ‘My House in Umbria’ not forgetting Norman Wisdom as a cancer patient in the TV drama ‘Going Gently’. I’m not sure in Ken Dodd’s Yorick counts. (Seriously – he played Yorick in flasback in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film ‘Hamlet’.)

    jb says: Thanks for the list, Jim. I haven’t seen the Henry portrayal of Othello, but I can imagine that he brings some warmth to the role. And that is something Othello is often in need of.

  2. Didier Lapine says:

    Natalie Tena is delectable and I’m sure her topless scene will attract attention but I felt her perforamnce was weak.

  3. john baker says:

    They tell me the staff at the West Yorkshire Playhouse are calling the Lenny Henry Othello, the Dudley Moor.

  4. Paul B says:

    I agree with you on that. It really attracted attention.

    Nice post! I enjoyed reading.

  5. Kevin says:

    Nothing wrong in principle about comedians performing serious roles but I can’t believe that a blacked-up Minstrel singing “Are You Lonely Tonight” would be part of any performance of Othello. Shakespeare deserves at least a little more respect than this.

  6. natasha says:

    Natalie’s performance was fine. She was working very hard

  7. Micah Sanchez says:

    Highest respects go to the artists that perpetuate classic literature by bringing them to life in these modern times. It has been my notion, however, that plays are staged based on its original script and form. If new elements are introduced, then, it should become a different play and should be dubbed by a different title or tagged with reference to the original play title such as an adaptation.