It’s quite tortuous these days to experience a Shakespeare play in which every line is acted out. Red Velvet sees Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge taking on the title role in Othello – a role Lester took on without the additional backstory at the National Theatre in 2013. Except this is the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1833 (the name Royal Opera House was not adopted until 1892), and in this play-within-a-play, scenes from the Bard are performed with such exaggeration to the gallery to the point that some people in the audience didn’t bother sticking around for the second half.
It was, of course, deliberate, partly jesting, and partly designed to give a twenty-first century cultured audience something to chuckle at. It partly succeeds. But it was also a test of endurance, and unnecessary cringeworthy in places, although as Aldridge later points out, that’s what theatre is supposed to do: get under your skin. For those who do return after the interval, their patience is rewarded, if anything because the play is done with debating the finer points of pronouncing certain words and phrases and other laborious topics of backstage discussion. There’s some humour in the earlier rehearsal scenes, for sure, but it’s hardly Noises Off.
Lester’s Aldridge comes into his own in the second half, too, and we get to know him (Aldridge) properly, with all the fervour and passionate fury that makes him such a compelling character. This unstoppable force who wouldn’t listen to criticism is a sort of Margaret Thatcher of the 1830s, a charismatic figure, undoubtedly, but an exhausting one, whose abrasiveness turns people against him.
Interestingly, it’s in a lengthy article in the show’s own programme that an inescapable flaw is revealed. Covent Garden went dark shortly after Aldridge’s second night because an epidemic of influenza swept London at that time, and both actors and audiences had to be given time to recover. Red Velvet, however, centres on a different reason as to why Aldridge would never play Covent Garden again. The conclusion is therefore over-simplified and, frankly, melodramatic, and audiences not exposed to the full story.
Thus the whole thing is to be treated with a whole tablespoonful of salt. This is true, I suppose, of many plays, but here, a prevailing desire to paint Aldridge as some sort of martyr whose character flaws should have been overlooked weakens the show’s potency for me.
The cast is, nonetheless, strong, with no ‘minor’ characters, except in the context of the play-within-a-play. I felt I got to know not only Ira Aldridge but the other characters well. Of particular note are Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas) and her dealing with Aldridge’s unorthodox (at the time) ideas in a very delightful and appealing British manner, and Bernard Warde (Simon Chandler), an experienced actor but still jittery and nervous at first night. Emun Elliott as Pierre LaPorte absolutely nails a French accent that is assured and consistent without ever resembling a caricature.
The script gets rather preachy in parts, almost shoehorning matters of racial prejudice and elitism into conversations, which themselves are sometimes too modern in style to be credible (did they really use
‘avant-garde’ in British English in the 1830s?). Anyway, thank goodness we’ve moved on from that horrid over-gestured way of doing Shakespeare. The prevailing views of the establishment of Aldridge’s era have not, however, entirely disappeared: there is still discussion regarding blind casting today, for instance, and with a very recent controversy regarding the nominations for this year’s Oscars, there is some food for thought in the issues the play raises.
An intriguing if inept and selective study into the life of Ira Aldridge, it is worth a look for those interested in lesser explored aspects of British theatrical history.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Imagined experiences based on the true story of Ira Aldridge
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. A young black American actor has been asked to take over the role. But as the public riot in the streets over the abolition of slavery, how will the cast, critics and audience react to the revolution taking place in the theatre?
This multi-award winning play, which originally premiered at the Tricycle Theatre, before transferring to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, will be the third production in the Plays at the Garrick Season and will be directed by Indhu Rubasingha. Olivier-Award winner Adrian Lester will reprise his role as Ira Aldridge. Kenneth Branagh said “Writing, direction and performance are exceptional in Red Velvet. I’m immensely proud to be presenting this work. I was aware of its development from its inception and believe Lolita Chakrabarti has written an important and exhilarating play which in its discussion of performance, politics, and race is as entertaining as it is illuminating.”
Red Velvet is written by Lolita Chakrabarti with direction by Indhu Rubasingham and stars Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge.
The full cast includes: Ayesha Antoine (Connie), Simon Chandler (Bernard Warde/Terence), Alexander Cobb (Henry Forrester/Casimir), Mark Edel-Hunt (Charles Kean), Emun Elliott (Pierre Laporte), Charlotte Lucas (Ellen Tree), Caroline Martin (Halina Wozniak/Margaret Aldridge) and Amy Morgan (Betty Lovell). Cast announcement.
2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH
Booking Until: 27th February 2016