Lenny Henry is in talks with Northern Broadsides actor-manager Barrie Rutter about playing the title role in a touring production of Othello next year.

Rutter said: "We have pencilled it in for 2009, but there's a problem with dates. Lenny is doing a writing course next year; he's got dates fixed and we are working around them.

"We are a touring company and the play has to fulfil the budgeting requirements of a national tour otherwise the funding bodies will be down on us."

Northern Broadsides has just secured a grant for the coming year of £265,000 from the Arts Council.

The bottom line is that if both Broadsides and Lenny Henry can agree on dates by Easter, we can look forward to seeing the Birmingham-born comedian take on one of the most challenging roles in Shakespeare.

If, however, a deal is not struck by then, Rutter said Broadsides would have to postpone Othello next year and stage Richard II instead.

My feeling, from following Broadsides for almost 15 years, is that Rutter would not be willing to discuss something provisional if he was not hopeful of a positive outcome.

Rutter said: "He can do it. This is not just a commercial venture. Also, he's the right age, he's 50. He's bloody willing to try everything and it's obvious in the way he approaches everything that he wants to make a quantum leap. My hope is we will sort the dates out and do it."

So how did the idea come about, who approached whom?

"In January, 2006, we were rehearsing Wars of the Roses. Lenny was doing a radio programme called Lenny and Will, about Shakespeare. I made a small contribution to it and was invited on to the second programme.

I directed Lenny doing the last speech in Othello, and this went out on Radio 4. He was terrifically responsive. At the end he gleefully said: Have I passed the audition?' I said Yes, why not?' "In June last year we then did a four-hour workshop at Warwick University. Conrad Nelson (Broadsides' associate artistic director, actor and musical director) was Iago, Lenny was Othello and Michelle Hardwick - our first Juliet - was Desdemona. It was just sensational."

Meanwhile, Rutter and company have to concentrate on their forthcoming touring production of Romeo and Juliet.

Northern Broadsides staged their first production of the play in 1996.

"Yes, it's come round again. It's what you have to do to sell a tour. This time there are a lot more resources, we are doing it with the New Vic (Broadsides' collaborators on the wonderful production of The Tempest)," Rutter said.

Romeo and Juliet bores me; I suppose it's the idealised notion of young love that gets on my nerves.

Rutter's eyes lit up as though in agreement. "There's a lot more than that. Love doesn't have to be so languid. Love is never languid," he said, giving a clue to the super-charged performances he is expecting from Ben Fogerty, in his first professional acting job as Romeo, and Sarah Ridgeway as Juliet.

"Romeo and Juliet is superbly structured in terms of what happens next. It is wonderfully percussive in the way language is put together and is very reminiscent of early Shakespeare."

Once the play starts in late February the company will perform in a variety of venues. Rutter emphasises the fact, pointing out that no other touring company in the UK is as adaptable as Northern Broadsides.

His view is that his company, founded on a wish and a prayer in a Hull boat shed in 1992, is worth a bit more than its £265,000 public subsidy.

He said: "Some companies get a lot more than that with only half a dozen actors. I put 16 actors on the stage; we tour twice a year for 12 weeks or more at a time and put on other things as well."

  • Romeo and Juliet is on at West Yorkshire Playhouse from March 26 to April 5 (tickets 0113 2137700); Skipton's Mart Theatre from May 14 to 17 (tickets 01756 791411); and Halifax's Viaduct Theatre from May 27 to 31 (tickets 01422 255266).