Sunday, 1 March 2009

"The world is broad and wide"

If you've had even half an ear on arts news recently you will know that Lenny Henry has been making his Shakespearean debut as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. What you may not have known is that he is doing so under the auspices of a company called Northern Broadsides, whose USP is the just that - they perform Shakespeare's plays, and occasionally those of other people, in broad northern accents. This is not just regionalism. It makes more sense than that. The poet Jackie Kay talking about this production for Front Row, the Radio 4 arts programme, was most taken not by the transformation of Henry from comedian to tragic hero, but by the sheer accessibility of Shakespeare when uttered with a northern twang.

I could at this point attempt a long and linguistic explanation of how the vowels of the northern accent are phonologically closer to those of the sixteenth century and how the Great Vowel Shift created a problem for us, but frankly it would all be rubbish. I suspect that it has more to do with the cadences of the accent, and also that the stressed syllables of Shakespeare's lines are closer to the natural stresses of the north than they are to the south, or rather, to RP, which is what Shakespeare tends to be performed in. With the exception of the comedic characters of course. They get regional accents because regional accents are 'funny'.

I've been to see quite a few Northern Broadsides productions since we first saw them in my teens. They're always excellent productions, clear and mostly quite traditional. The Wars of the Roses plays make much more sense done in Lancastrian and Yorkshire accents... it's easier to tell who's siding with who. Pity the two middle aged ladies on the row in front of me during Richard III (my first Broadside); one turned to the other in the interval and said, without a trace of irony, in the most posh accent you can imagine "It's very good, but I do wish they'd speak properly. I can't understand a word they're saying." I think she'd missed the point.

So if you get the chance, go see Othello. It's a very good production, with almost nothing out of place. And Iago was BRILLIANT....

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