“ Shakespeare's classic drama. „
I was lucky enough to be able to buy tickets to see Othello at the Bath theatre Royal. I love the theatre, I love Shakespeare (I have to - I am an English teacher) and the fact that Lenny Henry was playing Othello was very intriguing. He had always been a favourite entertainer of mine but this was far removed from what he is usually associated with.
Summary of the plot:
Othello, a general in Venice, appoints Cassio as his chief Lieutenant. Iago, filled with jealously, plots both their downfalls by falsely implicating Othello's wife, Desdemona and Cassio in an affair. This is Shakespeare so ends in tragedy and death.
A beautiful theatre which is perfect for Shakespeare, it is intimate enough so you can see the whole stage but was packed full to create an atmosphere - even in the standing places. The set was simple and fairly bleak but fitting for this play. It was cleverly designed so that despite the fact it changed places - even countries - it hardly had to change to make you believe where it was set. I was only a few rows back so was in a prime location.
The first few scenes I found myself anticipating Lenny Henry's entrance - the action doesn't start until Othello enters and I would suspect that was the main attraction drawing the crowds in. There was a lot of tension in the air and when he did make his first entrance the audience were still; it was almost eerie. He had stage presence as soon as he entered and his voice echoed around the theatre. He is an impressive man - you forget this is a well-loved comedian immediately and instead you are watching the powerful and mesmerising Othello. He towered over the rest of the actors which helped I think - although the cynic in me wondered if it had been deliberately cast that way! I had heard so many positive reviews about him as Othello that I think my expectations were high. So, was he any good? The short answer is yes, he was an outstanding Othello and seemed to fit the part very well. He is a very good actor. However - if I am being objective (and this is a review so I will be quite critical!) there were times when I felt he didn't quite meet the high expectations that had been set. I don't feel like he fully connected to the audience - he seemed to stare at the same point, high in the theatre too often, perhaps it was nerves a little but I didn't feel the intensity at all times. On a few occasions he had his back to the audience, although perhaps the director was to blame here. So although he was very good, I am not sure he was as impressive as some of the other more seasoned theatre actors.
Which leads me onto the actor who played Iago. He was played by Conrad Nelson who has starred in TV but is probably not known by most, I had not heard of him before but I think this is an actor to watch. He was simply incredible. He was an amazing actor that was so believable that his chilling performance gave me goosebumps. He is on stage for the majority of the play and when he was not there I eagerly anticipated his return. He showed all the different levels of the complicated character - you believed his jealous and treacherous side and he also showed his lighter and more jovial side; he made the audience laugh in the right places - one of my favourite scenes is the more humourous one when Iago begins his plot by ensuring Cassio gets drunk in a 'harmless' drinking game with the other soldiers. It was well choreographed and highly amusing which did break up the more serious side of the play. Conrad was also one of the composers and an associate director so he is a talented man and I hope to see a performance with him again. I cannot praise him enough and hope he wins some prestigious theatre award for his role as Iago.
Other notable performances were by Maeve Larkin (who played Emilia - Iago's wife who is unwittingly used to ensure the success of the plot). She was a very good actress who played a subtle role which became stronger throughout - you end up rooting for her as she turns on her husband and she realises what he has done. She is a strong female character in Shakespeare and that is always good to see! Cassio (Richard Standing) and the Duke (Fine Time Fontayne) also played an impressive role.
Jessica Harris (Desdemona) was a bit of a disappointment, so much so that my friend almost scowled every time she came one! She played the role as a very sweet-natured and happy young girl, practically skipping across the stage at times. While I do see Desdemona as innocent and sweet this was annoying at times and I would have liked to see more layers in this role, showing her strength of character as well, after all she defied her father's wishes by running away to marry Othello to begin with.
The Production as a whole:
This was produced by a northern company called the 'Northern Broadsides and West Yorkshire Playhouse' so the performances used northern accents. This was a bit disconcerting at times but you did become accustomed to it and I am sure the original Elizabethan plays did not use Italian accents so it did feel authentic.
This was an incredible night at the theatre and perhaps my expectations were a little high. Only a few weeks before I had seen 'Waiting for Godot' with Ian McKellen so perhaps after seeing one of the best theatre actors in the world (in my opinion) had raised the bar somewhat! I would recommend this and would say that it would be a good introduction to anyone who hasn't seen a Shakespeare play before, the plot is fairly simple and this is a good production.
I enjoyed Shakespeare at school, especially Macbeth (which I studied for O-levels) and Hamlet (at A-level). I also love going to the theatre, but hadn't actually seen any live Shakespeare on stage since my A-level years - some twenty years ago now!
But then, last year, I watched an interview on TV with comedian and actor Lenny Henry, who was about to start rehearsing for the title role in Othello. This whetted my appetite and when I heard the play was coming to the Theatre Royal, Bath, in April, my husband and I managed to get front row tickets for Friday's performance.
I only had a vague idea of the storyline of Othello before going. I had meant to read a synopsis online, but hadn't got round to it, so I just hoped I'd be able to follow it. It took about ten minutes for my ears to adapt to Shakespeare's language and after that, I was fine. I couldn't say I'd understood every word, but I could follow it easily and knew what was going on.
This was due to the excellent acting on stage. The Northern accents helped too! The company is called Northern Broadsides and they perform Shakespeare with Northern accents - which suits me just fine, as I'm from Lincolnshire, so I felt at home!
Othello is a play about jealousy, love, honour and duty. Othello (played by Lenny Henry) marries Desdemona (Jessica Harris) and they are happily in love, but Iago - Othello's ensign, played superbly by Conrad Nelson - decides to interfere. Without giving away too much of the plot, Iago sets about destroying Othello, uncaring as to who else he wounds along the way. As long as Iago himself is not incriminated, he is satisfied to set the wheels in motion, then move out of sight to watch events develop.
Iago is a fantastic character and Conrad Nelson stole the show for me in this role. I had gone to watch Lenny Henry really - who certainly impressed with his convincing performance and powerful presence. When we arrived and bought a programme, I was pleased to see I recognised two other cast members - Richard Standing (who played Father David in Doctors and Danny Hargreaves in Coronation Street a few years ago) and Jessica Harris (who I remembered from Being Human and Holby City).
I hadn't heard of Conrad Nelson previously, though he has an impressive CV and is also the Associate Director and Composer here. As Iago, he is on stage for most of the 2 hours 50 minutes and for me, his acting was responsible for drawing me into the story.
Like all the best villains, Iago has many sides to his character and Conrad Nelson showed the audience all of them perfectly. One minute, he's the jovial good-natured charmer; next, he's ruthless, devious and manipulative, dripping his poison in the ears of those around him. All the way through, the other characters refer to 'honest Iago', while the audience know differently and are desperate to boo and hiss out loud, pantomime-style! "He's behind you!"
The rest of the cast was very good throughout. While Conrad Nelson and Lenny Henry were outstanding, the performances from Jessica Harris (Desdemona) and Richard Standing (Cassio) are also worthy of special praise. Jessica's small frame worked very well with Lenny's height and build, as he picks her up and whirls her round the stage in delight. She is a convincing Desdemona, a sweet, innocent, youthful beauty and her performance is often beguiling. Richard Standing's Cassio is well done throughout, with the highlight being his wonderfully comic - yet realistic - drunk acting, as he becomes inebriated with the other soldiers.
The set of Othello is simple, but effective. On the front row of the theatre, we were privy to every bead of sweat and each drop of spit, but I do enjoy being close to the stage and feel wonderfully enveloped in the play.
Performances like this one are inspiring and fill me with passion for Shakespeare, the theatre and acting. In Conrad Nelson, I feel we have a genius, possibly one of the best actors in the country. Yet, as he hasn't starred in EastEnders, 99% of Britain will have no idea who he is. Sometimes, fame and talent are completely different things.
If Othello comes to your area, I definitely recommend you see it. I loved it and will remember it for a long time to come. We paid almost £30 a ticket and it was worth every penny - even in a recession!