Earlier this year ITV screened a documentary in which Lenny Henry charted his journey into Shakespeare.
The story is now pretty well known, but for those who haven’t heard it – Henry was Shakespeare-phobic until he met Northern Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter who showed him the way. A couple of years later, Henry was making his professional stage acting debut in Othello at West Yorkshire Playhouse. The play was a hit and transferred to the West End.
It was a heart-warming journey to relive on the TV screens, but what occurred to me most strongly when I was watching the show was that the man who played Iago to Henry’s Othello, Conrad Nelson, has left some indelible marks in the decade or so since I first saw him perform with the Halifax based company.
I took to micro-blogging site Twitter and wrote: “Watching Lenny Henry’s documentary makes me think Conrad Nelson is one of the finest actors of his generation”.
Within minutes I had a flood of responses, all of them essentially saying “hear hear”’. From audience members and makers of theatre – both the traditional type associated with Broadsides and those whose brand of theatre is a lot more avant garde – all were in agreement.
So why then hasn’t he had a major breakthrough?
Nelson’s career is impressive, the roles he has played thrilling, but for those of us who have witnessed what he is capable of, it’s a little frustrating not to see him on grander stages.
“After Iago went to town (London) I had a couple of meetings and some agents were interested, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice if a big film or the National asked me to perform there, but it’s not like I’m desperate for it to happen, I’d say yes if something like that came along, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t,” he says.
Toward the end of our interview Nelson’s wife Deborah McAndrew, still best known to audiences as Angie Freeman on Coronation Street, arrives. I ask if she feels the same frustration that her husband’s talents haven’t had as wide a recognition as they deserve and she is equally unequivocal. They have a lovely life, they both work as actors, her playwriting career continues to go from strength to strength, she says.
I’m sure that’s the case, but that’s not the point. When Nelson was on stage as the scheming Iago, opposite Henry, he raised the game of everyone around him. A few years earlier, he had stood on the vast Quarry stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as Richard III and appeared to suck all of the light out of the room. It was impossible to tear your eyes away him.
It seems unjust that a talent as bright as Nelson’s isn’t lighting up larger skies.
“I guess it’s to do with spheres of influence and there are spheres outside of which you just don’t exist,” says Nelson. “That might sound harsh, but often you just don’t figure in the conversation. After Othello was in town I got a new agent and there were a few big TV things he was wanting to put me up for, but I couldn’t get in the room. I’ve been doing this for 25 years but that doesn’t mean I’m known outside of the spheres where I am known. That’s just a fact.”
But what about justice? “It really doesn’t matter.”
The reason Nelson is able to shrug off the fact that, and I’ll say it with confidence given so many agreed with me – a truly great actor – can’t get seen for a TV part, is because it genuinely doesn’t matter to him.
Here’s why. We meet at Harrogate Theatre on day one of rehearsals for Northern Broadsides’ latest production. A Government Inspector, written by McAndrew, is directed by Nelson and is being co-produced by Harrogate Theatre who are using the play to open their All Points North season that celebrates work coming out of Yorkshire.
When he joined Broadsides, Nelson was ‘just’ an actor. In the intervening years he has become an associate director of the company, has musically directed most of the productions, writing original music for the vast majority, has acted in most productions and has directed many.
“If you drive towards one thing, then I guess it makes it easier,” he says.
“But if your focus is on lots of different things and you’re thinking ‘oh I fancy a bit of that’ or ‘I’d like to try doing that’ then it’s easy to be sidetracked.
“I’d be daft to say I don’t want to do the other things, another show in the West End would be great, but the fact that I get to direct, act, compose the music, that’s a real joy and something I find really satisfying.”
And there’s why if they big time doesn’t come calling, it doesn’t really matter. What matters to Nelson is the craft, it’s why he’s so good at it and it’s easy to see that it would be difficult to get bored when you have your fingers in so many creative pies.
It all began for Nelson, as it does with so many actors, under the wing of an inspiring teacher.
Growing up on the Wirral, Nelson was a keen athlete but it so happened that his athletics coach was also the school’s drama teacher and encouraged his young protégé. Alongside studying A-levels in biology, chemistry and physics, his first taste of acting convinced Nelson he belonged on stage. At Leicester University, he formed a band and gigging meant he was able to earn his Equity card and he moved to London after graduating to start his life as a jobbing actor, turning up to an open audition for a musical called Street Angels.
“I wasn’t really looking to go into musical theatre, but I heard about the audition, turned up, sang a song and got the job,” he says.
In 1992 he landed a role in Coriolanus at the Chichester Festival, playing alongside Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in the title role. That led to Branagh offering him a part in the film of Much Ado About Nothing which featured a galaxy of British stars.
“That was a wonderful job, I played one of the watch led by Michael Keaton. We turned up in Italy, Ken said, ‘Here’s some wine, get yourself a suntan’ and we spent a couple of months one summer out there,” he says.
“I would sit around and the end of the day listening to Brian Blessed and Richard Briers telling stories. It was one of the better jobs.”
Before he left for Italy, a job at the National, alongside a blunt Yorkshireman called Barrie Rutter in Tony Harrison’s Tracker of Oxyrhynchus, proved pivotal.
“Barrie wanted me to work with him and said he was going back up North to set up a theatre company,” says Nelson. “He went off to do all the legwork involved in setting something up and then contacted me and asked me to join him.
Nelson did and the rest is a history of mesmerising performances.
Those people will also have burned into their memories not only Nelson’s cunning, manipulative engrossing Iago, but also his powerful Richard III. He also lists Salieri in Amadeus and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing as favourite roles.
To try to get an insight into his, I ask about the process.
“It’s workman-like,” he says. “Particularly when it’s a big role, you have no option but to sit in the kitchen and do the legwork, get the lines, learn them and get them in there.
“Then when you get into the rehearsal room you can start to play and find out more about the lines. The most important thing I do as an actor is attempt to get out of the way. My job is to not impede the path between the words the author has written and the audience. All I’m trying to do is release the play. I go down the road and the only thing I really control is the number on the speed signs.”
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t explain the extraordinary work he does on stage. At several points during Othello, it was patently obvious to many that Nelson could have stolen the show, but he appeared to be holding back.
“I don’t want to stand out front and be in my own show, where’s the fun in that?” he says. “I want to be part of a show with everyone else, that’s the point of doing this, after all.”
True, but it is about simply ‘getting out of the way’ of the author, then what has made his performances so memorable?
Nelson isn’t about to wallow in praise. While he is cheese to his creative partner Rutter’s chalk, they share the same sense of Tyke resistance to such nonsense.
He does, however, give something away.
“Something has to happen to you when you are ingesting all those words,” he says.“Debs notices it. She says I change, I take something of these characters on. I guess it’s like a possession. If you take all those words in they have to do something to you I suppose.”
As he talks about ingesting the words of Iago, he mimes actually shovelling something down his gullet and when he looks back up at me his eyes are shielded by a suddenly hooded brow, Iago’s sitting opposite me and I see, up close, one of our great stage actors.
A Government Inspector is at Harrogate Theatre, September 7 to 22. Tickets 01423 502116. It tours to SJT Scarborough, October 16 to 20, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, October 24 to 27, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, November 20 to 24 and York Theatre Royal, November 27 to December 1.