Writer: Lolita Chakrabarti
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Premiering in 2012 as director Indhu Rubasingham’s first programmed work at the Tricycle Theatre, Lolita Chakrabarti’s biography of the first black actor to play Othello on the London stage reaches the West End at a time when issues of race and casting are as prominent as ever.
The majority of Chakrabarti’s retelling of the real-life story of African-American actor Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester) is set in 1833, after the actor Edmund Kean has collapsed prior to opening as Othello. Rather than allowing Edmund’s son Charles, due to play Iago, to “act up” by taking on his father’s role, manager Pierre LaPorte (Emun Elliott) drafts in his friend Aldridge, thus scandalising both the cast and London society by having the Moor of Venice played by a man of African origin rather than an Englishman in blackface.
The reactions of the rest of the acting company, bathed as they are in caricature and almost comedic ignorance, are painted as a microcosm of opinion that perpetuates until today. The lightness of Chakrabarti’s script as she imagines the backstage discussions softens the blows of some the opinions expressed, encouraging us to laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the language and attitudes.
The comedy extends to the overblown, stylised approach to Shakespearean performance that Aldridge is keen to shake up. The shock which greets his suggestion that Desdemona may actually look her husband in the eye, along with the characterisation of characters’ ridiculous hands-on-hip poses as “teapot acting”, helps paint Aldridge as a purveyor of a new kind of emotionally charged theatre. And yet when Lester performs as Aldridge playing Othello, it is still closer to that style than any we would consider valid today – Rabusingham wisely choosing not to skip too far ahead with such radical ideas.
After such lightness, the full moral force only brings itself to bear once the reviews are in – and the critics do not hold back in their appraisal of Aldridge by his heritage first and foremost. The play carefully suggests that Aldridge’s ideas of tone and emphasis of the Shakespearean dialogue were creatively different from his cast mates – a difference which the Times ascribed to “the shape of his lips, [making it] utterly impossible for him to speak English.”
As the fallout from the reviews forces his friend and employer to fire him, Aldridge is rightly enraged at his treatment, Lester displaying a magnetic ferocity. It is a scene that captures well the hypocrisy of those who point the finger at those who respond with anger to extreme provocation, while ignoring that they were the provocateurs.
Less effective is the prologue with an ageing Aldridge, which seems to serve only as an introductory info-dump before the story proper. A return to the older actor in the play’s closing moments is more successful, although an attempt to compare Aldridge’s pioneering efforts to those of a struggling woman journalist in a world full of men feels clumsier than it ought.
With a strong supporting cast, most notably Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree, Aldridge’s Desdemona, and a strikingly beautiful set from Tom Piper (lit beautifully by Oliver Fenwick), this tale of behind-the-scenes theatre work could have on its own fitted into the Kenneth Branagh Company’s season of actorly plays (it is preceded by Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade and the season will further include The Dresser). But in a year where the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite dominates, where issues of race and casting in Shakespeare and beyond continue, where assumptions are made about migrants based purely on ethnicity, it feels like Red Velvet has hit the West End at exactly the right time.
Runs until 27 February 2016 | Image: Johan Persson