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Lenny Henry talks about his role in the play Fences
You are a successful stand-up comedian.
Why risk disaster by accepting a major role in a heavyweight play? You could so very easily fall flat on your face, with audiences ridiculing you instead of laughing at your jokes.
But Lenny Henry took that risk when he played the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello. His performance was highly acclaimed by many, and the Shakespeare bug bit: last year he played Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. Now he’s switched to August Wilson’s modern American classic Fences, in which he plays the lead role of Troy Maxson.
Troy is a 53-year-old garbage collector in Pittsburgh. In his youth he was a star player in the Negro Baseball League. As the curtain rises, he’s sitting on his front porch enjoying an after-work drink and some jokey banter with his friend Jim. In the kitchen, his cheery wife Rose is preparing an evening meal. All seems quite well with the world. But soon the situation changes dramatically, as Troy’s marriage shatters, and he alienates his teenage son.
“The play is very much an African-American King Lear,” Lenny Henry explains when we meet backstage at Richmond Theatre. “It’s about a very flawed, tragic, and yet amusing character. “If you’re an actor, it shows many facets of your character, many shades of who you are on stage. You get to be funny, sexy, sad, and you get to be tragic, and violent. It’s for anybody who wants to push themselves as an actor.”
The play dissects the end of a long-term marriage in vivid detail. Lenny’s own marriage to Dawn French ended after 25 years. Surely any actor who has experienced such a situation must bring something from their own life? “We talked a lot about people we know during rehearsals with our director, Paulette Randall. “She is an incredible person, who seems to have a story for every single event in the family of man. So there was very little need to dredge up anything from one’s own life, because Paulette seemed to relate everything to events that have happened to her. “But of course, listening to a woman pouring out her heart, as Rose does in the play, if you’ve had any kind of life, these things happen to you. So you need to utilise that without reducing yourself to a pile of jelly on stage. All experiences are useful.”
Although Fences premiered in 1983, with James Earl Jones playing Troy, by the end of a performance it’s easy to feel convinced that the part was written for Lenny Henry. Did he go looking for the role?
“I’m not quite sure how it happened. I met James Earl Jones in 1990, when I was doing True Identity in Los Angeles. I think he felt it was a massive achievement that he’d done it — this is a guy who has played Othello three times! He thought Fences was a bigger push for an actor than Othello. “So I bought a copy of the play. I was only 30 at the time, but once I’d read it I thought: ‘Bloody hell, this is a long role, longer than King Lear, more lines than Hamlet maybe’. But when you get past 50, you stop being scared of these things. You think: ‘Why don’t you just have a go, and see if you can do it?’ I had four weeks to learn all these lines — Olivier had nine weeks when he did Othello at the National!”
But, Lenny cheerfully admits, “I’m loving the work.” It’s not the only work he’s involved with either — as we talk, this year’s Comic Relief is just a week away. “What’s great is that Fences has a week off next week. So I am able to put it into a box for a week. But it’s very tough: I will have to run the play every day, either on my own or with someone reading the other parts. This is the kind of play that if you take two days off, it slightly eludes you when you come back to it.”
Lenny’s home town of Dudley — “Ah, Doodlaie,” Lenny laughs as I mention the name — has featured in many of his comedy sketches. Now he’s been elected a Freeman of the Borough.
“I’m very complimented and flattered. I think I get a free pork pie when I walk down Dudley High Street. “And I think I’m allowed to go into anybody’s house and have tea, whether they want me there or not. And I think I can drive cattle down the High Street too. I’d like to mount an event that will cheer Dudley up.”
Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday. Oxford Playhouse, March 25 to 30
Tickets: Milton Keynes 0844 871 7652 or atg.tickets. com/miltonkeynes
Oxford 01865 305305 oxfordplayhouse.com