The Hounding of David Oluwale (WYP, 18th February 2009), Othello (RSC 21st February 2009), Othello (Northern Broadsides, 25th February 2009)

For one week in February, when you walked up to the West Yorkshire Playhouse you would have been confronted by two large poster images of David Oluwale and Othello (Lenny Henry). I’m not sure whether it was a deliberate decision for the West Yorkshire Playhouse to put on The Hounding of David Oluwale and Othello back to back, but in doing so and juxtaposing the two images, you can’t help but make comparisons. Renaissance Venice and the late twentieth century Leeds contain uncomfortable racist elements and a story that is 400 years old is still, sadly, relevant today. An article on the West Yorkshire Playhouse web site, discusses how the face of David is made up of a montage of pictures of scenes of Leeds (http://www.wyp.org.uk/interface/news_item_details.asp?news_ID=4283 accessed 23rd February 2009). Even more striking is the fact that the image looks across at Millgate Police Station, the station where the police officers who were accused of hounding David were stationed.

The Hounding of David Oluwale is a play about the stories of two men, David and the investigator, Perkins. Perkins acts as a narrator trying to piece David’s real story, the one beyond the police file and hospital records. It’s also a story about Leeds as the city attempts to rebuild the city and present a sense of civic pride. A pride that we also see in Venice as the army goes to war against the Turks. In building a pride in the city, Leeds’ issues are hidden, so rather than solve the homeless problem, the homeless are constantly moved from the door ways then sleep in and given little opportunity to sleep. One of these people is David who is constantly moved on by the police and in the end is brutal at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us. The play makes us aware of what the crux of the narrative from its opening as the body of David Oluwale is recovered from the River Aire and Perkins starts his search for the truth and to get justice for David’s death.

The story is narrated through conversations between David Oluwale and Perkins which are flash backs and also interviews with other people involved in the story. Interspersed with the story of David in Leeds are memories of Nigeria and David’s youth. There are scenes with his mother who clearly did not want her son to come to England. The cast move between roles so you get a real sense of the city and the range of people involved in this story. When playing the homeless the characters wear masks over their faces to illustrate that they are playing people with no identity outside the homeless community.

This is a heartbreaking story and it really moved me, as well as making me uncomfortable at Yorkshire’s past. David’s story starts with so much promise as he comes to England with the hope of becoming an an engineer. He meets a girl, Jenny, and the scenes between them are so tender. The things go wrong, and David is accused of not paying for a cup of tea and is assaulted for the first time by the police. He spends time in Armley jail and then in hospital where he is subjected to EST. David’s arrival in England was full of so much hope and it is shattering to see the man who danced limping and broken.

The RSC’s production of Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, has a clear theme running through it. This world is a racist and sexist world, where the entertainment consists of characters blacking up and an effigy of Desdemona being crudely smeared with black shore polish. The Northern Broadsides production does not use this kind of stage business to convey the racism in the play, but is more subtle in its approach, but does not detract from how awful the racist elements of the society are. At the moments that characters refer to Othello’s race and make derogatory remarks, Henry just rolls his neck to indicate his discomfort and that he is clearly tired of hearing this stuff all the time. Henry’s action is just so powerful.

Henry is a big man and his Othello has a clear stage presence which is very forceful and at the start of the plays really makes you feel that he is in charge. It is all the more shocking then when Henry ends up on the floor in a fit brought down so quickly by Conrad Nelson’s excellent Iago. All this happens in a day, which makes you wonder what kind of ‘chaos’ Othello encountered before he met and married Desdemona. Henry’s Othello is a transition similar to David Oluwale which is represented between both the physical and mental deterioration.

The area that I felt that Northern Broadsides did not make the most of was 5.2 as if the company didn’t really get round to blocking the scene. Henry did not make clear which lights he was referring to and there was little contact between Othello and Desdemona until her murders him. Henry enters the bedchamber and stands at the side of the bed to speak as if he was clear what the actions might be. I suppose this scene has been produced in so many different ways from Maggie Smith’s passive Desdemina in Olivier’s version to Imogen Stubb’s struggling and fighting back in Trevor Nunn’s version, and something less played was a challenge at this point in the play.

This was very much an ensemble production. As a regular at Nothern Broadsides performances, I recognised actors from previous roles. Conrad Nelson’s Iago was stunning. He made so much of those pauses and twists and changes. Maeve Larkin was a wonderful Emilia and the moment she realises that Iago has manipulated everything was an exciting piece of theatre.

Henry was a really credible Othello and the audience clearly loved him. He looked drained at the end of the performance, I saw having brought a really interesting interpretation to the role and moved to dispel this view that Shakespeare is just for posh people. Henry showed that Shakespeare can touch us all. Just as Othello is sadly relevant today, The Hounding of David Oluwale is also a powerful story and more so because it is a true story.

The Hounding of David Oluwale

http://www.wyp.org.uk/events/event_details.asp?event_ID=639 (Details of the production)
The Hounding of David Oluwale, West Yorkshire P…
Preview: The Hounding Of David Oluwale, West Yo…
Theatre review: The Hounding of David Oluwale /…
The Stage / Reviews / The Hounding Of David Olu
Theatre reviews from around the country – Teleg
Preview: The Hounding Of David Oluwale, West Yo…

Othello (RSC)

Othello – Touring – Times Online
Othello at the Warwick Arts Centre and touring – Times Online
Topical Bard (From The Northern Echo)
The Stage / News / Harry Potter actress to make…
Bidisha: Othello? Don’t do it, Lenny Comment …
Othello at the Warwick Arts Centre and touring …
Othello – Touring – Times Online
Interview: Kathryn Hunter talks about Othello -…
Theatre review: Othello / Warwick Arts Centre, …
Othello: Oxford Playhouse (From The Oxford Times)
The Taming Of The Shrew, Novello Theatre, Londo
FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Othello, West…
The Stage / News / Harry Potter actress to make…
Interview: Patrice Naiambana theatre features…
Birmingham Post – Life & Leisure – Birmingham C…

Othello (Northern Broadsides)
http://www.wyp.org.uk/events/event_details.asp?event_ID=5454 (Information of the production)
Bidisha: Othello? Don’t do it, Lenny Comment …
The Tempest, Courtyard, Stratford
Othello, W…

What to say about … Lenny Henry’s Othello S…
FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Othello, West…
Lenny Henry on playing Othello – Telegraph
Shakespeare’s Othello is no joke for Lenny – Co…
Theatre review: Othello, West Yorkshire Playhou
Lenny Henry shows he’ll be a tower of strength …
No reason why Lenny Henry can’t be Othello – Bi…
Curtain goes up on region’s must-see shows – Yo…
Lenny Henry makes non-comedy stage debut as lea…
Lenny just a jealous guy… and it’s no joke – …
Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – Times…
People: Eileen Atkins turns up her nose at Lenn
Othellos past, present and future Stage gua
Lenny Henry set to take on Bard challenge (From…
First Night: Othello, Quarry Theatre, West York…
Sneak preview: Lenny Henry as Othello – Yorkshi
Charles Hutchinson reviews Lenny Henry in Othel
‘Isn’t there some panto you want me to do first…
Eileen Atkins voices concern at Lenny Henry’s a…
Lenny Henry on playing Othello – Telegraph
Preview: Othello, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Lee…
BBC NEWS Entertainment Arts & Culture Hen…

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