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Red Velvet: Adrian Lester is powerful and extraordinary

| Theatre | 10/02/2016

Red Velvet. Garrick Theatre.
Red Velvet. Garrick Theatre.

The West End transfer of the Tricycle Theatre Production of Red Velvet offers a mixed performance.  Lollota Chakrabarti’s production offers plenty of fire, controversy and thought-provoking moments, but at times it seems it is missing a key ingredient.

The play is based around a key, and often controversial topic – racial prejudice.  Whilst portraying the incredible story of Ira Aldridge on-stage, there’s an argument to be made that the play could have explored further the issue of race and nineteenth-century theatre.  Whilst the play has plenty of stereotypical stances to make on the issue of racial prejudice, it is Adrian Lester’s performance as Aldridge, which stands out.

The play begins and ends in Lodz, Poland, where Aldridge made his final stage appearance.  But the bulk of the action, concerns his brief experience as Othello, at Covent Garden, in 1833, when he stepped in for a dying Edmund Kean, much to the dislike of his son Charles Kean.  Lester has to attempt to guide his fellow actors to look beyond their racial prejudices, and towards a new light, a future – in light of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act – where blacks being perceived as slaves was an idea of the past.

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet, Garrick Theatre.

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet, Garrick Theatre.

It is during the second act where we see Aldridge’s performance as Othello, where we see his authoritative grip and power conveyed with great passion.  Lester’s voice thunders through the Garrick Theatre; to a modern critic it was a performance to behold, as he skilfully lead the audience through Shakespeare’s gripping play.

To a nineteenth-century critic the views were not as favourable; The Spectator took the view that “an African is no more qualified to play Othello than a huge, fat man is to play Falstaff.”  The racism of The Times’s reviewer was even more apparent, when he observed of Aldridge, that “the shape of his lips”, meant it was “utterly impossible for him to speak English”.

The racism of the critics was hardly a shock to the audience in the Garrick Theatre; after all these views were common-place during the nineteenth-century.  What is noteworthy is how director Indhu Rubasingham was able to keep the controversy and debate around racial prejudice centred on the story and life of Aldridge.  Though the play at times could have been improved with an injection and interaction of these views, in the context of Red Velvet, at times it did work.

Asides from Lester, there were admirable performances from Simon Chandler as Bernard Warde, as an old stock stock actor trying to somehow make it through the ordeal of the play with some dignity intact.  Whilst Chandler was charismatic, there was a spirited performance from Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree, and a still and moving performance by Caroline Martin as Aldridge’s wife.

Red Velvet, the story of Ira Aldridge, is moving and at times thought provoking, but it is Lester’s fiery and furious performance that holds the production together.

Written by Sandip Kana | @sandipkana

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