Saturday, September 12, 2009
The Moor not Merrier
Comedians can be paradoxical individuals. Many are insular and introverted yet force themselves to face an empty stage and a baying audience as though it is a cold turkey treatment for life itself. They can be depressives, hypochondriacs, vertically challenged, self-hating gays, cross-dressers, cleanliness fetishists and any combination of these and a myriad other traits and imbalances. Some, of course, are relatively unfettered by psychological problems and have found an early career in the medium of humour. But, I would wager, among the very best there is often a problematic core that gives their performances a tragicomic quality that appeals to our own sorrows and conflicts.
Whether there is a sizeable element of the population which would like to experience life through the eyes of personalities that are complete opposites to their own, I don’t know but I suspect that a majority would take it if offered, if only for a day: men wanting to try out being women, timid wishing to be bold, losers desiring that winning feeling, the ageing wanting to be young again and the poor wanting to be rich (forever!).
In this world of potential contrasts, one that has always fascinated me is the funny man or woman who wants to go straight. You don’t have to click the digital control too far to see those radical young stand-ups from the Edinburgh Festival;, sporting their Perrier awards all the way into a tv series or film, where the real money is. These days, most comics don’t stay that way very long. The dying of the light in the comedian’s career is unlikely to be a lonely dressing room on a pier in some resort with drugs or alcohol as the sole companion. More likely it is a comfortable existence in some sunny expat colony by a warm sea.
But a particular thread still survives. This is the stand-up who wants to do straight theatre. I remember seeing Lee Evans in Becket recently, Max Wall also in Becket, Frankie Howard in Midsummer Night’s Dream, albeit in a comic part and – last night – Lenny Henry in Othello. I am in London, as you might guess and saw the nation’s favourite take on possibly his biggest challenge as the Moor.
He did well enough for me not to find my bum going in and out in dreadful anticipation of lines being blanked or choreographic gaffes. His stage presence is dominating if, at times, in need of sharper direction to ease out occasional woodenness. His real identification with the dark racial heart of the play gave some of his speeches an angry pathos that spiked my heart and made me conjecture how much he had suffered from prejudice as he climbed his comedy career ladder. Was that why he wanted to take on the part? Some kind of exorcism of dreadful days?
There was a relief mixed with delight in his adoring audience last night as they gave him a number of enthusiastic encores. He had done it! Pretty good for one of our favourite black sons playing the ultimate black man’s part.