British Universities Film & Video Council

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Othello (2010, BBC audio)

2010. GB. CD. 135 minutes (on 2 discs). BBC Audio. ISBN: 978-1408466919. Price: £12.99

About the author: Dr Deana Rankin is Lecturer in English and Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Between Spenser and Swift: English Writing in Seventeenth-Century Ireland (CUP, 2009)

This CD looks very different from others in the BBC Audio Shakespeare series. No synopsis booklet, no scene-by-scene breakdown, in fact very little mention of Shakespeare at all: on the BBC shop website it is listed as ‘Lenny Henry’s Othello’. From the cover, Henry gazes out, a tragic Fidel Castro; the notes inside describe ‘Lenny Henry’s Road to Othello’, an at times rather patronising account of just how far the BBC enabled that journey. All the signs are that this is more celebrity than Shakespeare.

Put the CD in the player however, take a little time to cast off the residue of Henry’s ubiquitous comic voices, and this makes for excellent Shakespeare listening. Directed by Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides, this version of Othello opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2009, later transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, London and earned Lenny Henry ‘Best Newcomer’ in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards that year. The recording is of the full cast production broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in February 2010.

… this makes for excellent Shakespeare listening

It might seem rather perverse to listen to a play which revolves on stage around questions of what you see, or rather, what you think you see: Othello’s blackness; Cassio greeting the newly arrived Desdemona just a little too enthusiastically; the lost handkerchief which turns up in the wrong hands. But ‘just’ listening to Othello is – even for those who think they know the play well – a revelation. Shakespeare’s text, with its fierce and uncompromising language of colour and violence – of black, white and red – is here firmly in the spotlight. The production does not always strike the right chord: the military background is rather unconvincing and the barracks of Cypress are more Glee Club than barely contained brawling. But the pace of the production is appropriately relentless with Othello’s tragic demise from well-spoken diplomat to calculating killer hurtling brutally along. The voice of Iago (Conrad Nelson) dominates as he repeatedly backs his listener into a corner, whispers in your ear, forces you into reluctant complicity with his schemes. His final vow of silence, ‘Demand me nothing; what you know you know: From this time forth I never will speak word’, is all the more resonant.

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