Saturday 1st February 2014, matinée
According to an interview in the Guardian, Adrian Lester’s least favourite question from journalists is ‘What is it like being a black actor?’ So he must have been delighted to discover that his wife, the actress and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti was going to write a play about the first black actor to grace the West End stage, nearly two hundred years ago in 1833. ‘Red Velvet’ tells the story of Ira Aldridge, a highly successful African American actor who specialised in classical theatre, and whose appearance at Covent Garden as Othello, following the sudden collapse of Edmund Kean, was unfairly curtailed by the scandalised reaction of critics, audiences, and the owners of the theatre who decided they would rather let the theatre go dark than continue with him as the star. He subsequently disappeared into apparent obscurity, but the West End’s loss was Europe’s gain as he went on to become the highest paid actor in Russia, and the recipient of a state funeral in Poland, where he died.
We can see why this play, returning to the Tricycle under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction for the second time and already sold out, has been so successful. Intelligently written and highly entertaining, the play is refreshingly unpretentious, and teases out the wider issues by keeping the story personal and real. The central tension in the play has Aldridge being forced into the role of reluctant cause celebre, a poster boy for the abolitionist cause and trailblazer for racial minorities, while all he ever wants is to be successful as an actor, black or otherwise. The fact that he later ‘whited up’ to play other Shakespearean roles such as King Lear is a bittersweet triumph and ultimately the act of a pragmatist for whom the art is the most important thing.
Adrian Lester delivers a rounded portrayal, full of intelligence, more than a hint of arrogance, and a surprisingly childlike enthusiasm for his art. He doesn’t try to win us over, but instead convinces us that Aldridge simply deserves to be there on his own merit, and his passion for acting has us rooting for him. When he finally loses control and lets fly with rage and self-pity it is exhilarating. The interplay of theatrical politics is deftly brought to life by the supporting cast, each with their own agendas. Oliver Ryan as Charles Kean wonderfully captures the indignation of the heir apparent, expecting to take over from his father, then finding the part taken away from him – the colour of the interloper being the final straw. Amongst the rest of the company, Simon Chandler and Nic Jackman make a good double act, the former as old hand Bernard shamelessly saying whatever is needed to work his way up the ladder, and the latter as youngster Henry, the low status actor who is more clued up than the rest of the company, and knows when to hide it to get on. As Ellen Tree, Charlotte Lucas is a charming free spirit, cheerful and resilient. Eugene O’Hare delivers a perfectly paced performance as Pierre La Porte, the theatre manager and admirer of Aldridge’s work, juggling all the balls to advance his friend’s career, only to find his life becoming a tragic farce, and his liberal values being eclipsed by his sheer frustration with Aldridge’s refusal to be grateful and toe the line.
There was never a better candidate for a story which needs to be told, and it is interesting to see a play which so skillfully makes the case for diversity in theatre without being overtly polemical. We can see for ourselves how this privileged and insular acting company are in danger of becoming artistically sterile through their insistence that imitation is the only value in art – that a white man (or woman) can encompass all aspects of life without looking outside themselves. Chakrabarti is quoted as wanting to write a play which would still address modern issues, and in our opinion she has done just that, by shining a spotlight on some of the worst aspects of the theatrical world, the conservatism and the dynastic power bases which still exist. After all, why are there so many theatrical dynasties, and so few sporting ones? Could it be that sport is objectively measured? Whilst not as overtly racist as the reviews which Aldridge received, some of the comments and arguments made during the recent controversy surrounding the RSC’s failure to cast East Asian actors in their production of ‘The orphan of Zhao’ shows the same kind of complacency and conservatism, and the ease with which the cause of ‘art’ can be used to justify excluding groups of people from the artistic process. In that sense, this is a story which is both extraordinary and universal, and beautifully told.