Photo by Alastair Muir
One of the productions I was most disappointed to miss in 2012 was Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, the first show under the Tricycle Theatre’s new Artisitic Director Indhu Rubasingham (who also directs the play). I was therefore thrilled to hear the show would be returning to the Tricycle before heading off to New York and swiftly booked a ticket. I was not disappointed.
Red Velvet tells the story of Ira Aldridge, who I admit I had never heard of. Mr Aldridge was a 19th century American actor who performed in theatres around the world, taking on many of Shakespeare’s biggest roles. This is made more significant by the fact that he was black and the play focuses on not only a key moment in his life and career, but also an unprecedented event in British theatrical history – when in April 1833 he replaced Edmund Kean as Othello on the Theatre Royal Covent Garden stage for two nights and the reaction of both the other actors and the fallout from his casting. At the time no other black actor had been seen on stage at one of London’s patent theatres and this also coincided with the campaign to abolish slavery in British territories (the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire was finally passed on 28 August 1833). Therefore asking Ira Aldridge to replace Edmund Kean in such a role had an even greater controversial impact and I admit I was sorry that I was not already aware of him.
The play itself is wonderfully structured, beginning and ending with an older Ira being interviewed by a young Polish journalist who questions why he has never returned to the London stage since 1833, which triggers him to remember his time at Covent Garden. He takes the audience back in time with him for us to gain an insight in to such a key moment in his life. It is interesting to see how the reactions of the other cast of Othello vary, with the younger members (particularly Henry played by Nic Jackman) excited to have such a talent joining them, whilst the older actors are shocked and to some extent appalled. This is highlighted most by Edmund Kean’s son Charles, who is playing Iago. He sees it as a disgrace that will ruin the play and is also angry that he has not stepped in to his father’s shoes. There is also Ellen Tree, the leading lady (and fiancee of Charles) who is faced with playing Desdemona opposite an actor with a very different style. The comedic rehearsal scene where Ira suggests Ellen looks at him to make an emotional connection rather than addressing the audience was very funny and also provided an interesting lesson regarding an old style of acting not seen today.
The play is superbly acted by all. Oliver Ryan conveys the intense anger and frustration of Charles, who is threatened by Ira’s acting talent but also by his more intimate style of acting alongside Ellen Chew. Charlotte Lucas is also excellent as Ellen, who although appears unsure about Ira’s very different style, grows in her admiration and respect for him as the play unfolds. Rachel Finnigan does a brilliant job in multiple roles, portraying Ira’s wife, a member of the acting company and the Polish journalist Halina in the opening and closing scenes and Eugene O’Hare is fantastic as the director Pierre Laporte, a long standing friend of Ira’s whose two handed scene with Adrian Lester in the second half of the play was a standout moment for me.
However it is Adrian Lester’s central performance as Ira Aldridge that steals the show and understandably won him the Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. Adrian conveys so many emotions over the course of the evening to present a multi-layered, utterly believable portrayal of Ira. We see how both his temper and passion made him seem intimidating at times, but also moments of his deep sadness and fear, which are extremely moving to watch. The closing moments of the play which see Ira preparing to play King Lear carry an irony that is also extremely powerful. The fact that Adrian himself has also recently portrayed Othello adds an extra emotional dimension to the production and I imagine gives the role an additional resonance now for him.
Red Velvet runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 15th March and there are a very small number of dates with seats still available. If you can purchase one or try for returns I would strongly recommend that you do so and I hope its success is repeated when it reaches America.