The pride and the prejudice that greeted the first black actor of note in 19th century London is explored by Lolita Chakrabarti in Indhu Rubasingham’s slow burning but fascinating play Red Velvet first staged at the Tricycle and now at the Garrick Theatre in the West End.
It tells the true story of African-American actor Ira Aldridge who in 1833 took over from Edmund Kean as Othello after the great Shakespearean actor collapsed on stage during a performance of Othello at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, and died a few weeks later.
The action itself, though begins in the Polish city of Lodz in 1867 when a journalist bluffs her way into Aldridge’s dressing room and impertinently inquires why he has so seldom performed in London since giving his Othello, for as seasoned thespians often remark, having given his tour-de-force, Aldridge found himself forced to tour.
We then flash back more than thirty years. There’s rioting in the streets over the abolition of slavery and deep discontent among some of the actors at the theatre over the manager’s decision to replace Kean with a black performer. The first night audience, however give an enthusiastic response to Aldridge’s performance. But The Times writes that “owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to speak English” and racial slurs also feature in other critical reaction to his Othello, with one critic describing the performance as “truly monstrous… sufficient to make Shakespeare’s indignant bones kick the lid from his coffin”.
This striking play is as much about the theatre itself as it is about racism. It is a drama laced with wit which admittedly takes a while to really catch fire, while Chakrabarti’s dialogue too often sounds a jarringly modern note. But the story is told with clarity and conviction and the production amusingly replicates the extravagant acting style of the period to bring it vividly to life, enhanced by the 19th century footlights and the permanently visible actors.
What however makes the production really stand out is the power and passion of Adrian Lester’s performance as the legendary actor. Indeed Lester (who is married to Chakrabarti) beautifully captures the pained dignity and irritation of the ageing, ailing Aldridge, prepared to play Lear in white face paint not long before his own death. He receives strong support from Mark Edel-Hunt as Edmund Kean’s pompous son Charles who expected to follow his father into the role of Othello, Charlotte Lucas as Charles’s fiancé Ellen Tree who is to play Desdemona opposite the black actor, bringing real life rancour to this production of , a p[lay about jealousy, and Emun Elliott as the theatre’s ubiquitous French manager.
In all then an absorbing, though-provoking evening in the theatre.
Runs until 27 February 2016
Box office: 0330 333 4811