Othello by William Shakespeare

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BBC Radio 4, 27 February 2010
Just over a year ago I reviewed a half-hour documentary describing Lenny Henry's experiences as he essayed a classical role for the first time in the Northern Broadsides Theatre Company's revival of Othello. I hoped that at some point the revival might be broadcast on radio. Happily Radio 4 fulfilled my wishes, by transferring the production direct from its West End run, complete with its original cast and director (Barrie Rutter).
This Othello was preoccupied with the issue of colour. While Othello (Lenny Henry) had obviously achieved great things in battle, he lived in a Venetian society where racism was endemic. Brabantio (Geoff Leesley) hated him for marrying Desdemona (Jessica Harris) and thereby soiling the family reputation.  Iago (Conrad Nelson) resented Othello's presence as governor, in the belief that he should have been given the chance instead. Such prejudice stemmed from the fact that Venetian society was both provincial and traditional. The citizens spoke with Yorkshire accents, conjuring up in the listener's mind such stereotypical traits as stubbornness and hard-headness, both of which (according to a recent article in the Yorkshire Post) are "ingrained in our sense of Yorkshireness." True to form, they were happy to observe certain set behavioural patterns - for example, celebrating military victories with an all-white, all-male gathering with plenty of beer and community singing (with tunes specially composed by Conrad Nelson). Othello's presence in their midst threatened their identity as well as their understanding of social cohesion.
Yet this revival also suggested that Othello was responsible for his own downfall. At the beginning he seemed like a wide-eyed innocent, revelling in his unaccustomed good fortune. The speech "Most good, grave, and reverend signiors" (Act I) was delivered in a colloquial tone, with particular emphasis placed on the phrase "Rude am I in my speech." This Othello might have been a noble Moor, but his background was a humble one - just like that of Henry himself, who left school without any qualifications, and retook his 'O' Levels at college while performing a summer season in Blackpool. Any reputation Othello acquired - like that of Henry - was solely due to his own efforts.
However Othello made the fatal mistake of assuming that everyone could be taken at face value. He placed a naive trust in Iago, and suffered as a result. Othello's downfall was pitiful to witness; his voice cracked, and he burst into tears as he (wrongly) suspected Desdemona of infidelity. More damagingly, Othello began to believe all the rumours about himself; perhaps he really was a "savage," as the Venetian citizens claimed. This revival stressed how racism had a destructive effect on his self-esteem. Desdemona understood this; her line "These men! These men!" was directed specifically at Iago and his followers, and what they had done to her husband.
Desdemona's death scene was notable for its tonal variety. Her voice gradually became weaker and weaker as Othello smothered her; this was followed by an agonizing silence of one or two seconds, and then Othello let out a great roar like a wounded lion. Iago's insinuations, coupled with the racist taunts of the other Venetians, had transformed him into a savage, incapable of articulating his feelings.
Looking at the reviews of the stage production, I see that Henry was criticized by Michael Billington in The Guardian for not measuring up "to the rhetorical music of the verse," while Lynne Walker in The Independent believed that his interpretation was "not a subtle reading." Both opinions tell us more about the critics' prejudices rathe than Henry's actual performance. His Othello was an astonishing characterization, making us painfully aware of how racism can destroy people, even those with the best of intentions. Quite simply this was one of the best Shakespeare revivals I have either seen or heard in recent years.