LENNY Henry will make his stage acting debut in Yorkshire next spring, playing Othello with Northern Broadsides.
The comedian and TV actor, who was 50 this summer, said playing one of Shakespeare’s most tragic roles would be both a new challenge and daunting.
It is certainly a massive departure for a performer who despite a massive comedy reputation and appearances on TV as an actor has never acted on stage before.
Also, two years ago, he made a Radio 4 programme about overcoming his schoolboy hatred of Shakespeare!
Lenny’s been quoted as saying: “It seemed to me that Shakespeare was very much in the province of posh people.
“I’m black, I’m from Dudley, I’m working class and Shakespeare’s not for people like us.
“But then when you study it, the way I have been, you realise that it’s for everybody.”
Barrie Rutter, award-winning boss of Northern Broadsides and the man who will direct Lenny, has spent much of his career trying to persuade audiences of just that.
And his Halifax-based company has succeeded beyond all expectations in doing just that.
“I first met Lenny over a microphone while recording an Othello speech for Radio 4,” said Barrie.
“Afterwards Lenny declared to me that sitting with his back against a wall, learning lines in a company of actors, was a strong desire of his.
“I didn’t need any prompting and two weeks later, with West Yorkshire Playhouse on board as co-producers, we were able to offer Lenny a deal.”
That deal sees Lenny playing Othello in a production which will open at the Playhouse in Leeds as part of its 2009 spring season before touring to Scarborough, Coventry, Bath, Kingston, Newcastle under Lyme and Halifax.
Lenny says he was inspired to play the part after making the comedy film True Identity in Los Angeles, in which he played a black actor who wants a role in Othello but has to adopt the identity of a white man to escape the Mafia.
“The sub-plot involved my character understudying (actor) James Earl Jones in the role of Othello.
“He and I discussed the role many times.
“He told me that when the time was right I should jump in with both feet, work hard, keep my eyes and ears open and let the text do all the heavy lifting.”
Lenny has also watched from the wings as his wife, comedian and actress Dawn French, has done more and more acting.
He said: “I see this as something I’m going to want to do more of. I really like theatre and my wife has done a lot.
“I’ve seen her acting ability grow over the past 14 years and it clearly expands your brain. It gives you gravitas.”
For a performer who cut his teeth on stand-up and went on to dominate TV with hit shows packed with comedy characters getting into a new role shouldn’t be a problem.
Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse runs from February 14 until mid-March, then goes on a two-month tour.