“It’s like being at a crosswords”
Indhu Rubasingham keeps it in the family with her opening salvo as Artistic Director at the Tricycle as Lolita Chakrabarti’s first play Red Velvet features her husband Adrian Lester in the main role. But her tale of the experiences of Ira Aldridge, a nineteenth-century African-American actor who caused shockwaves with his performances, offers an intriguing preview of sorts as Lester will be taking on the role of Othello for the National Theatre next year.
For Aldridge was a Shakespearean actor of some renown who toured Europe with many productions and the opening of the play sees him preparing to take on the role of King Lear in a Polish theatre. He’s being interviewed by a journalist about the key moment in his career though, a disastrous attempt to take on the role of Othello which was received with horrific racism (a man blacking up to take on the role was infinitely more preferable) and distaste from nearly all around.
It is a horrendously fascinating subject: Aldridge stepped in for an ailing Edmund Kean at a time when slavery was still a booming trade and the proposed Abolition of Slavery Act was causing rioting in the streets. And inside the theatre there’s unrest too as no-one is happy about a black man taking on the role, least of all Kean’s son Charles who had his own eye on the role as it would have meant playing opposite his wife Ellen as Desdemona.
Performance-wise, Red Velvet is undoubtedly excellent. Lester simmers with frustrated rage as the older Eldridge and brims with magnetic charisma as the younger, capturing the more expansive acting style of the time with enough brio to suggest the innate strength of the actor beneath. Ryan Kiggell’s Charles is a richly comic picture of entitled pomposity abd I loved Charlotte Lucas’ Ellen, especially in her charged scenes as Desdemona.
But I had more problems with Chakrabarti’s writing. Her use of language is frequently anachronistic here, constantly jarring the attention from the nineteenth century setting. Whether this is intentional (an attempt to draw parallels to modern society) or not (perhaps just first-time niggles), it feels misguided and thus worked oddly counter to the interests of the play, as far as I saw it anyway.