"Barrie Rutter rocked my world"

Lenny Henry has warned his multitude of fans that his new tour may be the last opportunity to see him doing stand-up for some time—because acting has now become the biggest part of his career.

A meeting with Northern Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter six years ago transformed Lenny and dispelled the idea he had had since his school days that Shakespeare was beyond him.

“I made a show for Radio 4 called Lenny and Will and I met Barrie Rutter who absolutely rocked my world.

“We did the last 14 lines of Othello which begins ‘soft you, a word or two before you go’ and we rehearsed it for four hours.”

Henry had always thought he was not clever enough to understand Shakespeare. But Rutter thought differently and cast Henry as Othello—a huge gamble on someone who had never performed in a straight play before.

“Othello changed my life. Barrie basically taught me how to do Shakespeare from scratch. I’ll always be grateful to him.

“Now I’ve got Shakespeare in my bones. And I’m hoping to do more—I want to do more. My ambition is to do as much Shakespeare as possible.”

Such was his success in Othello that last year he trod the boards at the National Theatre as Antipholus of Syracuse, one of the twins in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

Now he is in talks to do a contemporary play before returning to Northern Broadsides in about 18 months to perform Macbeth.

“I’ll keep doing stand-up but it probably won’t be at the forefront of what I do—I’m going to do more theatre, more acting.”

He has no preference whether he does a Shakespeare comedy or a tragedy.

“It’s all Lenny Henry, as far as I’m concerned. I bring everything I’ve learned in the last 36 years from doing working men’s clubs in Nottingham or Mansfield or Chesterfield to doing the Royal Variety performance or the Queen’s jubilee or to appearing on stage in Australia or New York—I bring everything to bear on every project I do.

“So I approach every project the same—I’m going to learn something here; let’s keep my eyes and ears open and see what happens. And that’s what I do.

“I love acting and I want to do more. But I’ve been a stand-up comedian since I was 16, so I’d be very stupid to say I’ve gone off that now. I haven’t gone off it—it’s my job and I love doing it.

“But actually there’s something about working with a company and a brilliant director that signals to me a career change or a direction change. I love comedy but working with a great director on a really good text is the way forward I think.”