“As a working-class kid growing up in Dudley in the West Midlands, Lenny found William Shakespeare’s plays boring, irrelevant and inaccessible. But by the age of 50 and with a burning ambition to try his hand at serious acting, Lenny decided it was time he faced his fears and finally tried to get to grips with the Bard.”
To many, Lenny Henry is that big bloke who advertises the hotels. To those with a long memory, he is still the sixteen-year-old kid with the big grin and bags of energy, who barn-stormed the New Faces TV talent show and, via Tiswas, Three of A Kind and several seasons of his own sketch show, grew up to be a dramatic actor (Chef, Hope and Glory) of mixed successes. Some of us still expect jokes from Delbert Wilkins and Deakus every time he walks on; that or a bowl of Alpen muesli. It all rather undercuts his recent successes as a classical Shakespearean actor, notably Othello, the stage production later adapted for Radio 4.
Henry got a slot in the recent run of Perspectives arts documentaries on UK’s ITV1 channel, playing the version of himself who never ‘got’ Shakespeare. For the usual arts documentary route into a high-brow subject. Henry retraces his steps, from listening to plays in his car to starring as Othello for regional theatre and onto Comedy of Errors for the National Theatre, which was live-streamed around the world.
Henry goes on the now-standard arts documentary travelogue of personal experience. Henry delves into his personal story, the impenetrable language barrier of Shakespeare, still not broken even after graduating with a BA in English literature. It took Northern Broadsides theatre director Barrie Rutter to make the breakthrough.
“I made a radio show for radio 4 called Lenny and Will, and in that show I met Barrie Rutter who absolutely rocked my world. I met Barrie at Broadcasting House. We did the last 14 lines of Othello which begins ‘soft you, a word or two before you go…’ and we rehearsed it for 4 hours.” Working Barrie finally freed Lenny from the idea he’d held onto since his schooldays that Shakespeare was completely beyond his reach.
Along the way, Henry meets MOBO Award winning rapper Akala, who deserves his own show. Akala helps kids understand Shakespeare by presenting it through hip-hop. They played a great game of spotting Shakespeare’s lines mixed in with Wu Tang Clan and Eminem. Other notables in the show included Globe Theatre director Dominic Dromgoole, going further in de-bunking the snobbery around Shakespeare, playwright of the common man; Oxford don Professor Jonathan Bate, Henry’s mentor who prepared him to play Othello; actor Dominic West who played Iago; and Adrian Lester from Hustle, who tries with Lenny to show a class of London schoolkids how they too can “get” Shakespeare.
This was a workman-like assembly of standard parts to fit the documentary format that relied on Henry’s personality to carry it through. I’m still in culture-shock, having grown up with him goofing about on TV, not finding Chef or Hope and Glory convincing. But clearly he now ‘gets’ Shakespeare and is keen to see current generations get it as well. The show was lifted by Akala and the schoolkids’ workshop with Lester and to its’ credit, didn’t go for hushed reverence and an unqualified gushing conclusion. Henry summed it up well, so we’ll go with that:
“Meeting all these people has just confirmed to me how universal Shakespeare’s appeal is. It’s sort of made me think I could have done it before, I could have done it earlier.
“It would be stupid to say that I’m in love with Shakespeare, because I’m not. I find it very, very difficult and hard to learn. But I do feel like I’ve climbed a mountain as it were, there are many more mountains to go, I’m in the foothills as it were, of trying to figure it out. I’m richer for the experience certainly.”
Well done, Perspectives, so are we. ITV: commission another series, please.
Lenny Henry: Finding Shakespeare
Perspectives Episode: 2, Sunday, 1 April 2012, 10:15PM – 11:15PM (Factual)
Production house: Matchlight