Lenny just a jealous guy... and it's no joke

LENNY Henry talked of his excitement at playing Othello, Shakespeare's tragic hero destroyed by sexual jealousy, in his stage acting debut at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

The comedian is to star in a new co-production by Northern Broadsides and the West Yorkshire Playhouse starting on February 14.

Henry, whose career as one of Britain's best-known comedians started on the talent show, New Faces, will feature in a tour by the Halifax-based theatre company, directed by Barrie Rutter .

The comic's first professional brush with the Bard came when he made a BBC Radio documentary series in 2006 interviewing top Shakespearian directors.

Rutter's cooperation on one episode focusing on Othello's final speech led to Henry asking him whether he was capable of playing the role. The director insisted he was.

"I was not cynical about my reply, I just think when and how," said Rutter.

The pair later co-operated at a students' workshop at Warwick University after which Rutter told Henry: "Lenny we have got to do this," and after that it was just a matter of fixing dates.

Rutter approached the Playhouse's artistic director, Ian Brown, who agreed within "half a second" to stage the co-production. Henry said: "I basically grew up with an allergy to Shakespeare, did not understand it, did not know what they were talking about.

"We had an English teacher who threw books at us and said 'Read this' and we had big 17-year-olds repeating 'Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo'...it was like a weird, strange country, a foreign language none of us knew.

"When we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Shakespeare seemed to be for people who talked posh and I just ran a mile."

But more recently, when studying for a degree, he read many Shakespeare plays. And during the making of the Radio Four series Rutter helped to break down Shakespeare for him.

Later making another Radio Four series Shakespearian experts Dame Judi Dench, Trevor Nunn, Patterson Joseph, Peter Hall and Adrian Lester all advised him "roll your sleeves up and approach it like work."

Henry said: "So that is what it is going to be. It is definitely not going to be celebrity slumming. I am going to be part of Northern Broadsides company and have colleagues and have my turn in the corridor learning my lines.

"I am looking forward to that. Being a solo act for 32 years I am usually in my dressing room drinking tea and going 'Oh I hope its a good house'. This is different and I am looking forward to having a company to share my woes with. It is an honour to work with Northern Broadsides."

Henry said his wife, Dawn French's acting prowess had grown as she had appeared in plays over the past 14 years. She had encouraged him to "do some theatre" because it would help with his "gravitas" and said the more stage time he got the better.

"This Radio Four show was a big turning point. It was like a quest to find out if Shakespeare is for everybody or just an elite and the minute I realised it was for people like me and who talk like me, I thought OK I am going to give it a go."

Ian Brown said he believed the Othello production would appeal to a wide audience, adding: "Lenny will be a great Othello."

After a month at the Playhouse, the production will move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; the Belgrade, Coventry; the Theatre Royal, Bath; The Rose, Kingston, and the New Vic, Newcastle. It will finish at The Viaduct , Halifax in early May.

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