Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

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Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 1:30 pm

The reinvention of Lenny Henry

He has always been TV's Mr Zany but now he's starting again, earning respect as a Shakespearean actor and making his National Theatre debut in The Comedy of Errors

Sam Leith
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 November 2011 21.00 GMT


Henry on his character in The Comedy of Errors: 'He’s scared; he has no family. Here he is in another faceless city. And he’s just lost.’ Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

'This is my life," says Lenny Henry, wry but somewhat irked. Not 10 minutes into our conversation, he has been monstered by a passer-by – a lavishly bearded Aussie who took some seeing off. "I'm trying to have an interview," Henry said after a minute or two of chat. "If you're still here in a minute I'll come and say hello."

"So you bloody should," his new friend boomed. "You're a brother! Come here and give me a hug. You're supposed to be a brother. You got to practise what you preach. I could teach you a few things …"

Henry dealt with the interruption with exemplary politeness, but it gives you a sense of how much people see him as public property: nice Lenny; zany Lenny; the Lenny who can be relied on to do funny voices and give strangers hugs.

We are meeting in a break from rehearsals for the National Theatre's new production of The Comedy of Errors. He wanted fresh air, so it's coffee and soup on a metal table outside a cafe in the concrete precincts of the South Bank. It's wintry. So is Henry. I wouldn't say he is glum, exactly, but he is a heavy presence: physically bulky, with an overcoat over his tracksuit, collar pulled up against the wind. His face is grizzled with salt-and-pepper stubble. There's not much bounce in him.

This will be Henry's debut at the National ("shitting myself … it's like being in the Olympics"). And though The Comedy of Errors – a rumbustious, pun-laden mistaken-identity caper about two sets of identical twins – may be the closest thing Shakespeare wrote to a farce, Henry is approaching it not as a comic turn but a serious dramatic role.

"You'd be mistaken in thinking it's all comedy and lah-di-dah," he says. "There's quite an emotional core to it …" His character, Antipholus of Syracuse, arrives in Ephesus in search of his twin brother, and "comes on wearing a mask of confidence". But then, when he's alone on stage, "he turns to the audience and suddenly you see he's scared shitless: he's lost, he has no family, he wants his family. And here he is again in another faceless city. And he's just lost."

A play about identity might well strike a chord with Henry. He has been through some changes himself. Two years ago, he starred in Barry Rutter's Northern Broadsides production of Othello and critics expecting to shoot the Tiswas veteran down came away praising, in the words of one, "one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen". Henry left school in the mid-70s without O-levels, yet he is now – after taking a BA in English from the Open University and following it up with an MA in screenwriting – working on a PhD. And last year saw the end of his 25-year marriage to fellow comedian Dawn French.

Would he call what he is undergoing a reinvention? "Sounds a bit grand, that," he says. "I don't know. I think I'm trying to – I'm trying to make a career, rather than just doing jobs for the sake of doing jobs. I did a TV show called Lenny Henry Dot TV a couple of years ago and I hated it. These things always happen when you don't have time to reflect. And I didn't do anything on the telly for three years." Henry attributes his professional disillusionment – "it was my idea, as well!" – to a people-pleasing tendency to take everything on. Is he better now at saying no? "I'm getting better. Being more assertive. It's good. Try to be more assertive." He pauses. "I sound like I've done a lot of therapy. Which I have."

Henry, now 53, was a child when he first became famous – an appearance on New Faces in 1976 taking him from Dudley, where he was expected to follow his father into a factory, to overnight stardom. "I was 16. I didn't know anything. I'd watched every cartoon and every children's programme and everything that Mike Yarwood and Eric and Ernie and Benny Hill had ever done. And I could do impressions of people. That's all I had."

He was successful, but not in charge of his own career. Notoriously, and to his regret, he was cajoled into appearing in The Black and White Minstrel Show. This articulate and thoughtful man has spent the best part of his adult life being Zany Lenny: dressing in fluorescent suits; grinning in a red nose for Comic Relief; capering around squawking "Katanga! Katanga!" It is the sort of persona that could tire you out. I think it did tire him out. To see him starting out again as someone less gaudy, more meticulous, more earthbound, is to witness a butterfly turning, with a grateful sigh of relief, into a caterpillar.

Having been "allergic" to Shakespeare – "When you're working class and you feel like you're a bit of a toerag, you think Shakespeare's not for you, you know?" – he's now deeply engaged with it: "Shakespeare is for everybody, not just for toffs with a cauliflower down their tights."

He goes on and on – not luvvyishly but with real attention – about what Yeats called "the fascination of what's difficult". "John Cleese told me that A Fish Called Wanda took 35 drafts, and I just did that [high maniacal laugh] hah hahahahah, like I didn't believe him. Well, now I believe him."

On the back of Henry's MA in screenwriting, he was commissioned to write "a sort of Rockyesque sports film, set in Hackney, about basketball". The script is the starting point for a screenwriting PhD, which will involve a module on race. As he says, of sports films: "Black people are always in the team being yelled at by the white coach. We'll look at this in 100 years' time and it'll be like when you look at the hundred years war and it's about six inches long in the history timeline … We're going to look at the time when blacks and Asians and lesbians and gays and transgendered people didn't get an opportunity to do something – and it'll be like this long on the big timeline thing. And we'll be: 'That's not so long.' But actually, when you're in it, it feels like a really long fucking time.

"You just want to go into a meeting where you're not the only black person. Or where the only black people you meet aren't on security where you go in the door, or in the canteen: 'Yo, Lenny, how are you? Do you want de feesh?'"

For much of his career, it would have been hard to think of Henry as political at all. Even though he was a contemporary of the Thatch-bashing alternative comics of the 80s, he came up from the variety stage – as he's put it: "Big bow ties; flared trousers – never cool." What does he make of the comedy scene now? In particular, of the new nastiness of the Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle kind?

"New nastiness? It's the same as the old nastiness, isn't it?" he says. I say something feeble about irony. "Ah," he says, his accent heading in the direction of the Caribbean. "Post-mah-den! Postmodern, ironic twattishness!" His own voice returns: "I don't know. It all seems the same to me. Comedy bullying. It'll come, it'll go."

He talks admiringly of the black comedian Andi Osho, of Tom Wrigglesworth and Daniel Kitson – "a genius. It's wonderful when comedy does move you, when – it sounds wanky – but when there's a moment in the show where you stop and go: 'Oh, oh – it's not just a joke. It's this too.'"

"That's why doing The Comedy of Errors at this point in my life is extraordinary because it's not just about mistaken identities and" – the Zany Lenny voice comes out – "wacky goings-on and all the funny things that ensue." Then Zany Lenny is gone. "It's about somebody who's going to die if he doesn't find a thousand quid. It's about somebody from a broken family trying to put the pieces of his family together again by the end of the story."

When I ask him about the things on which he looks back with most pride the first two things he mentions in his personal life are the adoption of his daughter Billie, now 19, and – perhaps surprisingly for a man whose marriage has just ended – his wedding day. I ask where he is personally these days.

"I was divorced last year, and moved out of, uh … It's different. It's different." I'm getting the side of his face as he talks, slowly. Has the change in his personal life affected the way he thinks about his place in the world?

There's a long pause. "Well, you know. I've got my family. I've got my family, I've got my friends. It's good. It's a good place to be. It's like sort of starting again, really …"

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Re: Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 1:41 pm

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+tommy+cooper+plays+hamlet&docid=1355767546857&mid=F8B92151D914F6D6B3A7F8B92151D914F6D6B3A7&FORM=VIRE1#
Comedian Tommy Cooper plays Hamlet.

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Re: Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 1:33 pm

The Comedy of Errors – review

Olivier, London

Susannah Clapp

The Observer, Sunday 4 December 2011


‘Terrific’: Claudie Blakley with Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati in The Comedy of Errors at the Olivier. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

It has wags and it has Wags. It pictures the city as a place in which people go nuts; a street band weaves in and out singing "Goin' Out of My Head", "Paranoid" and "Crazy" in Romanian. It stars Lenny Henry, pulling off his second Shakespearean role with looks of thickening bewilderment and slowly dawning illumination. Henry is often nimble and quick but sometimes he looks as if he's only half there – exactly what is required in a play that hinges on the rending apart of identical twins.

Dominic Cooke's production of The Comedy of Errors is Henry's National Theatre debut: it is only a couple of years ago that, having gone on radio to say he didn't get the point of Shakespeare, he found himself starring in Othello. More significantly for the London stage, this is Cooke's first production at the National, and may be a moment that helps determine his future. He has triumphed as artistic director of the Royal Court: now, directing on a bigger stage, he can't help but put himself in the running for the directorship of the National after Nicholas Hytner.

He would, no question, be high on any list of successors. Still, this clamorous, lively modern-dress production is not his apogee. The invention is tremendous but too reliant on gizmos, business and big mechanisms. Bunny Christie's design of towering skeletal buildings festooned with iron walkways, supplies an exciting wreck scene as people at all levels howl and clang and lower babies from precipitous heights. The backstory – delivered in one of Shakespeare's panic-inducing expository speeches – is acted out in mime, with the mighty set splitting in two as the twins are severed from each other and doomed to end up in the same city, constantly mistaken for the other.

Cooke's substantial achievement is to orchestrate a gradually mounting mania, through slapstick and bawdy to desperation. He introduces a cafe scene with custard pies, a farting competition through an intercom, and a Keystone Kops chase with pedal scooters, straitjackets and spinning scenery. A real London ambulance gets that special round of applause that is reserved for vehicles on stage: even a bicycle will raise an appreciative murmur in the stalls.

All this is buoyant. Still the more intricate invention is elsewhere. In Henry and his twin, Chris Jarman; in two beguiling Dromios, Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser. And in the Wags: Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry teetering on high heels, wearing frocks like bum bandages. Blakley has a terrific tour de force when she slithers from a pool table to paw her man, and another when, lying on a massage table, she keeps springing up to deliver her crossness. Terry, stiff-limbed and poppy-eyed, speaks the verse with a bolshie naturalness: she doesn't embrace it but scowls at it, as if its rhythms were just tripping her into being so funny. These two wire you into the speech of the play in an enduring fashion.


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Re: Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 9:34 pm

Lenny Henry: 'I've been doing yoga to prepare for The Comedy Of Errors'


Actors Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati talk about working out and finding themselves through Shakespeare roles as they prepare to star in The Comedy Of Errors.

Actors often beat themselves up mentally when it comes to tackling Shakespeare. But in rehearsals for The Comedy Of Errors at the National Theatre, Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati have literally been knocking lumps out of each other to give their performances as master and servant a bit of believable bite.

‘So you beat each other black and blue?’ I ask, in a foot-in-mouth moment. ‘We’ve got the black covered,’ chuckles Henry. ‘Not sure about the blue...’

‘No, it’s more a kind of a kind of purple,’ chips in Msamati. It’s quality comedy banter, of the kind you might expect from the double act of Antipholus and Dromio, who roar through the middle of the ball of confusion that is The Comedy Of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s most full-on farces.

But there’s a serious side to the tale, too. Director Dominic Cooke has updated the setting from ancient Ephesus to modern day London, the tale of two pairs of identical twins who have been separated for 33 years – much confusion ensues – trailing the additional baggage of people trafficking, illegal immigration and the search for identity. Very on-trend, you might say.

‘We’re hoping the setting sits lightly on the play,’ Henry is quick to point out, lest the comedy sound like a tragedy, while also aware the combination of Comedy and Lenny Henry in the title of a show might give entirely the wrong impression. ‘But the idea of comedy as a big collection of jokes... well, it isn’t that. It’s about the events that unfold in one crazy day.’

It’s Henry’s second tilt at the Bard, following on from his acclaimed Othello two years ago, which started out at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and transferred to the West End. Where that was unabashed Acting with a capital A, The Comedy Of Errors poses an altogether different challenge – it’s all about comic timing and giving the comedy a physical kick when the language doesn’t quite connect to modern ears.

‘Some of the language is archaic,’ admits Henry. ‘Physicalising the comedy definitely helps. But it’s bloody hard work,’ he mock groans. ‘We’ve been boot-camping, doing press-ups, doing yoga. I’ve been used to galumphing across the stage on my own, at my own pace for 36 years. But this is ensemble playing, for a 6ft plus, 18-stone bloke. It’s hard but I’m loving it.’

Msamati, best known for his role as JLB Matekoni, bashful suitor of Mma Ramotswe in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, smiles in polite agreement. A limber 35, he’s 18 years Henry’s junior and looks like he took the physical challenges in his stride. He likes the way The Comedy Of Errors uses the device of separated twins to tease out ideas about what makes us who we are.

‘Fundamentally, it’s a quest to find the other part of one’s self and to do that, you might have to go to extreme lengths,’ he says. ‘It’s only when you meet the other part that you are able to make sense of yourself. He could well be speaking about his co-star. Henry is clearly relishing his late-flowering bloom as a Shakespearean, a career turn he puts down to the passing away of his mother.

I couldn’t have done it before now: it’s exactly the right time,’ he says. ‘My mother’s death was a big turning point: it taught me never to be scared of anything ever again.’ Yet his public perception is still a mix of Comic Relief, Theophilus P Wildebeest and dodgy budget hotel ads (why, Lenny, why?). Behind that facade there lurks a fully paid-up academic, working his way from an English degree in 2007 towards a PhD on the role of black people in the media. It’s the intense Henry who comes to the fore when he ponders the subtext at play in The Comedy Of Errors.

‘It’s about making connections with family. These are transplanted souls who are hanging on to each other. They’re in a bubble. It starts with a death, which is pretty heavy stuff for a comedy. And it felt weird using words such as “master” and “slave” and all that that implies... but I still think the audience are going to laugh.’

Msamati picks up the theme. ‘There are many levels on which a story can be understood,’ he adds. There’s a suggestion that these guys are illegal immigrants. They are people of means but they don’t have the right to be there. People who have been separated from members of their family will be very moved by that.’ Then his benign countenance cracks a rare frown and he catches himself: ‘I get very annoyed when people over-analyse Shakespeare. These are not museum pieces – they’re stories. Shakespeare was an actor who wrote stories into plays to entertain the people. And this is a great story.’


The Comedy Of Errors previews at the Olivier, National Theatre from tonight, opens November 29.

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Re: Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 9:38 pm

^ QUOTE: ‘Physicalising the comedy definitely helps. But it’s bloody hard work,’ he mock groans. ‘We’ve been boot-camping, doing press-ups, doing yoga. I’ve been used to galumphing across the stage on my own, at my own pace for 36 years. But this is ensemble playing, for a 6ft plus, 18-stone bloke. It’s hard but I’m loving it.’

Many actors report that playing Shakespeare affects them physically: it increases the lung capacity.

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Re: Comedian Lenny Henry turns Shakespearean actor

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 9:41 pm

Lenny Henry reveals how he lost three stone preparing for Shakespearean role

Louise Jury, Chief Arts Correspondent
30 Nov 2011



His regime will never rival the Dukan Diet but Lenny Henry has revealed how he achieved a dramatic loss of weight by going to a terrifyingly tough Shakespeare boot camp.

The comedian made his debut at the National Theatre last night after losing three stone in training for The Comedy Of Errors, a tale of mistaken identity in which he and actor Chris Jarman play twins separated at birth.

The quick wit displayed by his character Antipholus of Syracuse was not hard for a man renowned for his comic creations. But the challenge of appearing on the Olivier, the biggest of the National's three stages, triggered his decision to get fit.

This was reinforced by the company's training programme under movement director Ann Yee, who instituted four hours of training every morning for the first week of rehearsals.

Then there was at least a half-hour mix of dance, yoga, Pilates and military exercises to build stamina and energy before each day of rehearsals after that.

Henry, 53, said: "It's like being in the Olympics - you have to train. There's a lot going on in Shakespeare. Ann basically put us through boot camp. I didn't think we'd do exercises for four hours before every rehearsal."

Dancer and choreographer Yee said: "We danced a lot to get everybody to use their body as a bigger tool. Lenny and Chris danced a great deal in the first week."

Henry's own cardio training reg- ime was backed by a diet with "very few carbs - no bread, rice or potatoes" - and lots of the chicken and tuna on offer in the National canteen.

The result mirrored the three-stone weight loss his ex-wife Dawn French revealed at the recent Glamour Awards.It also brought him closer in physique to Jarman, who plays Antipholus of Ephesus -and who revealed it created some confusion. "There was a lady in the canteen who thought that I was Lenny," he said. Henry's performance follows his stage debut as Othello two years ago, which saw him named outstanding newcomer at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. "I was very chuffed with that," he said.

"It's the best creative experience of my life so far - this and Othello. I feel blessed. I'd never have thought 25 years ago that I'd be at the National. I want to do more acting now."

But he is coy on whether there is a new lady in his life. "Might be, might not be, what's it to you?" he teased.

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