A CurtainUp Review
Red Velvet a Welcome Transfer to Brooklyn by Deirdre Donovan
Ira Aldridge, the 19th century African American actor, carved out a niche in history with his exquisite acting of Shakespearean roles. Dubbed the "African Roscius," he now is at the center of a fascinating new play by Lolita Chakrabarti. Those who like their Shakespeare are lucky that the Tricycle Theatre's Red Velvet is enjoying a run at St. Ann's Warehouse, with all but two members of the same cast. Since its premiere in London in 2012, the play has gathered nothing but bouquets from the critics and public alike.
Like Lizzie Loveridge I enjoyed this fictive chronicling of the young Aldridge, Chakrabarti grounds her flights of fancy with solid historic facts from the actor's life. The play is smartly bookended by the elderly Aldridge doing his Lear in Lotz, Poland, in 1867, but the bulk of it time travels back to 1833 during the days of the Abolition of Slavery Act in London. It brings to life that time Aldridge was pressing himself into prestigious theater circles in London. Then, presto! Fate dramatically stepped in one evening: the legendary actor Edmund Kean collapsed on stage performing Othello, and Aldridge was asked to stand-in.
Aldridge, the first African American actor to play the Moor, executed his turn with unprecedented ferocity. The critics, measuring him against Kean's more stylized and mannered Othello, savaged Aldridge, turning him from an up-and-comer to a down-and-outer. Little wonder that he fast exited the city and toured the provinces and continents.
The staging of this production at St. Ann's is again excellent. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, one feels the ambience of the mid-19th-century London theatre world as well as the tumultuous political climate brewing in London (set by Tom Piper). Even before the lights go up, one sees several actors in the wings of the theatre, preparing for performance. This play-within-a-play device that Shakespeare himself used to heighten theatrical effect takes on a rich historic resonance here. And if there is one scene that soars in this highly theatricalized production, it is the steamy handkerchief scene from Othello, powerfully reenacted by Lester's Aldridge, in a performance-within-a-performance.
Adrian Lester, as the protagonist, is a glove-in-hand fit. Though hardly a look-a-like to Aldridge, Lester slips into his skin just fine. A black actor himself (and spouse of Chakrabarti), he has performed in an array of Shakespearean parts, in New York as well as London ( Hamlet and Henry V at BAM). Film buffs can see his sterling acting, too, in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost).
The ensemble is strong, and though they don't ever upstage Lester. Part of the charm of this production, in fact, is that the ensemble isn't ever trying to outshine Lester.
While Chakrabarti's play latches onto a fictive episode in Aldridge's life, it points up some bugaboos that have been used against black actors over the centuries by white racists. The playwright takes a lot of racial baggage out of the closet in this work. And though watching this show is entertaining, it is also a history lesson that is right in synch with today.
Looking back from a distance, history remembers Aldridge as one of the greats of the theater world. This actor with the dark-tinged skin rose to the summit of the acting profession of his day. And, if he didn't always get a fair shake by the white elitists, he did manage to corner history quite well.
St. Ann's Warehouse Production Notes
Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabatri
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Cast (*indicates new to Brooklyn cast member): Simon Chandler, Rachel Finnegan, *Nic Jackman, Adrian Lester, Charlotte Lucas, Eugene O'Hare, *Oliver Ryan.
Designer: Tom Piper
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Composer: Paul Englishby
Choreographer: Imogen Knight.
St. Ann's Warehouse, at 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn. Tickets: $40. Phone: # 718-254-8779.
From 3/25/14; opening 3/30/14; closing 4/20/14.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 3pm.
Running time: approximately 2 hours; 15 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on performance of 4/02/14
To act spontaneously one needs to know exactly what is coming.
— Ellen Tree
Lolita Chakrabarti's first play opens Indhu Rubasingham's tenure at the Tricycle Theatre in North London starring Lolita's husband Adrian Lester as the black nineteenth century actor Ira Aldridge. The play opens in 1867 in the last days of Ira's life when touring Eastern Europe, he is being interviewed by a Polish reporter Halina Wozniak (Rachel Finnegan).
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
To the rear of the stage is a beautiful, swagged red velvet theatre curtain and the cast bring in the props creating historical atmosphere. The elderly actor is reluctant to be interviewed and quite bombastic; after all he is the highest paid artist in Russia. The story of his career is framed by one of the Polish journalists breaking into a profession despite her gender.
The scene goes back more than 30 years to London where the great Edmund Kean is ill having collapsed onstage and was due to play the role of Othello, the Moor at Covent Garden. Kean's son Charles (Ryan Kiggell) normally plays Iago and is ready to take the title role when Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare), the manager says he has engaged another actor, an American who has had good reviews elsewhere. They are shocked when they discover that Ira Aldridge is a black actor, they had thought dark was an allusion to the style of the play. Set in the context of the debate on the abolition of slavery of 1833 in England and the colonies, Ira's casting prompts a vehement reaction.
We are treated to a full rehearsal of the handkerchief scene. As the actors rehearse we see the stylised, gesture ridden school of declamatory acting used in the 2000 seat theatre. Ira Aldridge insists on playing the part realistically but the physicality of his acting and the alleged bruises left on Desdemona played by Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas) engenders terrible racism from the critics and results in the closure of the theatre. It is quite shocking and distressing to hear what was said at the time by the dehumanising newspaper critics. Wounded, Ira decides to leave London and will never play Covent Garden again but has a very good career on the European continent.
The play is stuffed full with theatrical pleasers and jokes with Ferdinand Kingsley as bit part actor Henry Forrester in wonderful striped trousers, networking to increase his opportunities and the very unsympathetic Kean nephew set against Aldridge from the off. We meet Ira's English wife Margaret (Rachel Finnegan) and Pierre and Ira debate the public reaction to a realistic Othello. Indhu Rubasingham directs with many of the cast lining the edges of the stage, watching as if in rehearsal.
Adrian Lester will play Othello at the National directed by Nicholas Hytner next April and this performance will be eagerly anticipated given the context of Red Velvet. We see him as Ira Aldridge as a young actor, and as an old experienced one, painstakingly putting on white makeup and a white wig for the part of Lear. We hear about Ira's passion for the theatre and for the realism of interpreting the text and his unwillingness to compromise his principles even for his friend Pierre. Charlotte Lucas is interesting as Ira's Desdemona as she crosses her fiancé, a grumpy Charles Kean played by Ryan Kiggell. A black maid Connie (Natasha Gordon) observes from the wings.
Red Velvet made me want to know more about Ira Aldridge and I hope to see more of Lolita Chakrabarti's writing in future.
The production played in London at the Tricycle through November 10th, 2012.