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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RED VELVET
at Garrick Theatre

FIGHT FOR THE STAGE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Johan Persson

The discrimination experienced by so many black actors and musicians of the past, and articulated with such brilliance and power in the National Theatre’s stunning revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is demonstrated once again in the West End transfer of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, presented by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. Though a century  separates the prejudices suffered by the protagonists of both plays, the villain of the piece in each is racism.
 
The real-life central character in Red Velvet is an African-American actor called Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester). Born in New York in 1807, he came to England in 1824, making his London debut the following year. Six years later, after an extensive provincial tour, he was asked by the French director (Emun Elliott) of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, to stand in for the great tragedian Edmund Kean, who collapsed during a performance of Othello in which he was playing the title role. In the event, Aldridge’s charismatic interpretation of the Moor was well received by the audience, but it failed to find favour with Kean’s son Charles, who was playing Iago.
 
Aldridge’s more naturalistic approach to Shakespeare’s text was so different from the posturing, declamatory style of the period (think of the controversy caused by the Actors Studio in New York in the 40s and 50s, with exponents such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, and you’ll have some idea of the impact made by Aldridge in 1833) that London’s newspaper critics vigorously condemned it. “An African is no more qualified to play Othello,” shrieked one of them, “than a fat man is to play Falstaff.” Nor was there any mistaking racism as the kernel of their disapproval. "Because of the shape of his lips,” opined The Times, “it was utterly impossible for him to speak English.” Exception, too, was taken to the physical contact Aldridge insisted on having with his Desdemona (Charlotte Lucas). The fact that in 1833 a bill was finally passed by the British government abolishing slavery in its colonies, fuelled the flames of the controversy still further.
 
It would be 15 years before Aldridge would return to the London stage.
So what happened to him in the meantime? Chakrabarti’s play doesn’t go into specifics. What it does instead is open (and close) in 1867, the year of his death, in a theatre in Lodz, Poland. Aldridge has been engaged to play King Lear in whiteface and is clearly unwell. A local reporter-cum-admirer fraudulently gains access to his dressing room for an interview, the answers to her questions helping to fill in some biographical gaps in the play.
 
Despite the debacle in London, Aldridge went on to make a career on the stage for himself and was presented with several European awards. You won’t learn any of this from the play, but from the notes provided in the programme.
 
Despite its omissions, both personal and professional, Red Velvet offers Lester a great opportunity to show just how accomplished an actor he is. The playwright is his wife, and she’s written a star-driven role for him he was born to play. There are fine performances, too, from Charlotte Lucas as the actress Ellen Tree (and Desdemona), and Mark Edel-Hunt as the intransigent Charles Kean.
 
Indu Rubasingham’s direction goes some way in disguising the sketchiness both in the play’s structure and its narrative arc. The serviceable set and costumes are by Tom Piper.
 
Another programme note by the playwright tells us she had originally conceived the material as a film. I think her initial instinct was correct.

 


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