Othello: Northern Broadsides with Lenny Henry

We were at he New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme tonight for the Northern Broadsides’ Othello with Lenny Henry. It was an excellent production with great performances from the whole cast, but particularly from Lenny Henry and Conrad Nelson as Iago. Barrie Rutter came on at the start to explain that Rachel Jane Allen, playing Bianca, had been taken ill that morning and her place had been taken at short notice by an actor from the Vic’s next production. She appeared with book in hand, but performed well given the circumstances!

There were few props – for most of the time the stage was bare and it was only in the final scene that a bed appeared. As usual, the Northern Broadsides cast brought the text alive, clearly articulating Shakespeare’s lines and making them live and breathe. A brilliant Rutter invention was the scene involving Cassio and a bunch of musicians, in which Iago gets Cassio drunk – all done to a musical round.

As the Guardian review points out there are two approaches to performing Othello: either as the noble, generous, trusting Moor, or, in the words of FR Leavis, as a self-dramatising figure filled with “an obtuse and brutal egotism”. Henry leans towards the former. He is a big, burly impressive figure who describes his wooing of Desdemona with transparent sincerity.

“Conrad Nelson is a great performer…he gives one of the best performances of his career. Lenny Henry is a massive presence and you easily believe that he is a soldier that could run through twenty men with an arm and a dagger, as he later boasts.”
Yorkshire Post

“One of the most malevolent Iagos I’ve seen……stealthy, sinister and frightening. You believe he’s capable of destroying Henry’s Othello. And you believe in Henry’s destruction”
The Times

“Henry truly triumphed – From his entrance, there is no mistaking his sheer stage presence and impressive bearing. But he delivers the verse with compelling clarity and dignity too The fact that he is such a big, powerful man, and his Desdemona, heart-wrenchingly played by Jessica Harris, is so tiny, young, naïve and vulnerable make these scenes almost too painful to watch. And then, in the magnificent last, Henry delivers some of the greatest poetry Shakespeare ever wrote with clarity and depth of feeling and reaches the heart of a terrible sense of tragic loss.”
Daily Telegraph

In the programme, Carol Chillington Rutter poses the question, ‘What’s wrong with this relationship?’ and reviews critics’ answers, from Shakespeare’s time to the recent past:

Thomas Rymer knew the answer. He was writing in 1693, some ninety years after Shakespeare’s company played Othello before King James. By then, the transatlantic slave trade was in full swing and mobilising a language of species inferiority to legitimate the buying and selling of human beings, the international traffic in flesh. Othello, said Rymer, was ‘a bloody farce’. The relationship between Othello and Desdemona was ‘unnatural’, and Shakespeare’s characterisation of them was ‘absurd’. “A blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter”, but never a General serving the Venetian state. And as for a wife, “a Moor might marry some little drab or small-coal wench”, but never a Senator’s daughter.

Charles Lamb knew the answer, too. What Shakespeare’s Othello showed audiences in 1811 was ‘improper’ viewing. Reading the book of the play was safe enough. In the library, where ‘imagination’ could prevail over ‘the senses’ and protect the ‘bodily eye’ from disagreeable ‘reality’, contemplating the story of ‘a young Venetian lady of highest distinction’ laying ‘aside every consideration’ and marrying ‘a coal-black Moor’ was somehow ennobling. But in the theatre, it was a very different matter. ‘The courtship’ of the ‘white woman’ and ‘coal-black Moor’, ‘the wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona’, the ‘actual sight of the thing’: that presented to the spectator ‘something extremely revolting’.

So revolting, indeed, that Lamb’s friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had to argue that Othello wasn’t really black. “It would be something monstrous,” he wrote in 1819, to imagine Desdemona, “this beautiful Venetian girl,”falling in love with a veritable negro,” just as it would be ludicrous to imagine Shakespeare “so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth.” Othello, then, ‘must not be conceived’ as a ‘blackamoor’. He was ‘a high and chivalrous Moorish chief’. That is, he was ‘tawny’, practically white. He had to be. For loving a ‘veritablenegro'”would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona,” a Desdemona given to unnatural appetites.

The point is that Desdemona simply doesn’t see ‘the thing’, ‘the wrong’ that, if ‘clime, complexion and degree’ made any difference to her all, would stop her love in its tracks. She’s blind to black and white discriminations.

This process of making the relationship ‘right’ by whiting out Othello reached its absurd conclusion in the opinion of the ‘lady from Maryland’ – a transatlantic equivalent of ‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’ – whose thoughts, first voiced in 1886, that is, within twenty- three years of the U.S. Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that freed America’s slaves, continued to be quoted (seriously) in MR Ridley’s 1958 Arden edition. “In studying the play of Othello,” she stated, “I have always imagined its hero a white man.” For surely, that was what ‘the great master’ intended. “Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have coloured Othello black, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.” (Those ‘idiosyncrasies’, it’s to be assumed, were familiar to the literate ladies of postbellum Maryland). The ‘daub of black upon Othello’s portrait’ must be considered ‘a freak of imagination’: “Othello was a white man.”

The disgust, the incredulity coded in the evasive language of Rymer & Co is, of course, anticipated in Shakespeare’s play. Brabantio won’t believe Desdemona has eloped with the Moor. The daughter he raised, the daughter whose mind he knows that heknows is ‘a maiden never bold’, a child “So opposite to marriage that she shunned/The wealthy curled darlings of our nation.” Would this daughter, he demands, ‘in spite of nature’, ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on?’ Would this daughter “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/Of such a thing” as the ‘thicklips’?

Roderigo anticipates Brabantio’s disbelief – and nails it. Desdemona has ‘made a gross revolt,’ he smirks, “Tying her duty, beauty, wit and fortunes/ In an extravagant and wheeling stranger.” She has committed, Brabantio horribly admits, ‘treason of the blood’. The fault in Desdemona is symptomatic. “Not to affect many proposed matches/Of her own clime, complexion and degree,” sniffs lago, “Foh! One may smell in such a will most rank,/Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.” And not just ‘thoughts’. Deeds. The ruffians shouting in the street in the middle of the night beneath Brabantio’s window require the father to imagine the monstrous: “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”; “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe.”

“What’s wrong with this relationship?” For Brabantio, lago, Roderigo, it’s black and white. But that’s not how Desdemona sees it. Unimpressed by the ‘wealthy curled darlings’, the limp Roderigos who hang around her father’s Venetian door, Desdemona is fascinated by the stranger he invites across his threshold. Listening to tales of ‘disastrous chances’, ‘moving accidents’, ‘antres vast and deserts idle’, ‘of the cannibals that each other eat’, “The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders,” the demure city girl, her father’s high-class chatelaine, grows not just truant from her ‘house affairs’. She grows into the cannibal Othello talks of. She forgets the kitchen to fasten on stories of the ‘unhoused’ wilderness. And with ‘greedy ear’, she ‘devour[s] up’ Othello’s discourse. Desdemona turns man-eater. Prompted (perhaps) by tales of boldness, Desdemona grows bold, and teaches the delicious stranger – like Sylvia in The Two Gentleman of Verona, mobilising the oldest female trick in the book – how to lay himself out on her plate. She ‘bade me,’ Othello recounts, “if I had a friend that loved her,/l should but teach him how to tell my story/And that would woo her.”

Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, sometimes claimed as an inspiration for Othello

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