The Saturday afternoon play on Radio 4 was Othello with Lenny Henry in the title role. I’ve got a big crush on Lenny Henry, and I did think he was excellent, bringing a sweeping delivery to the lines. Lenny Henry isn’t a trained Shakespearean actor but evidently being a good mimic, learning timing as a comedian and also being a respectable soul singer – I saw him once fronting a band doing Ride Sally Ride – along with his big African voice and control of a range of emotion can substitute for years at RADA and the RSC. He got Othello’s charm, so we can see why Desdemona would love him, and his bewildered passion.
The plot of Othello is a total clunker, with Agatha Christie-style set ups of misinterpreted conversations and misplaced handkerchiefs. But the poetry is great, and the main characters besides Othello – Iago, Cassio and Desdemona – are towering. Cassio the smooth, educated man with his romantic admiration for Desdesmona, his contempt for his devoted tart of a girlfriend, Bianca, and his loyalty to Othello is a picture of the averagely decent officer, the kind you get in Tolstoy. He also has one of the finest drunk scenes ever. Iago’s shrugging cynicism, his hatred of his superiors, both social and moral, and the desire to bring them down in the dirt, along with his malicious awareness of how he is regarded carelessly as the honest fellow is one of the best pieces of malevolence in drama. Those two were both played well by the actors, but Desdemona was dreadful. She had this shrill nagging voice which made you wonder why Othello hadn’t strangled her before the play begun. Desdemona is of course the most tactless woman who ever lived and died, since she always chooses when her husband is in a filthy mood to ask him a favour, and asks him in the worst possible way. However, she is asking out of a sense of justice rather than whim and it is part of her attraction and worth that she doesn’t calculate. But she is meant to be highly refined and this Desdemona only appeared naïve in contrast to her bawdy maid Emilia rather than fastidious and innocent.
It was a pleasure hearing this and I wish I had been able to see the lovely Lenny giving it all on stage dressed in a military uniform.