No, Red Velvet isn’t a play about the delicious American frosted sponge cake, the title quite simply refers to a theatre curtain, and I don’t know about you, but I’m always mightily disappointed when a show doesn’t tantalise us with one ahead of the first act. There is just something missing about productions without a grand reveal, although I make allowances for the fact that this play incorporates a red velvet curtain as part of Tom Piper’s set backdrop, and to superb effective.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s first and multi-award-winning play is dedicated to the pioneering 19th century African-American actor Ira Aldridge who battled bigotry and prejudice throughout his career, and following an acclaimed première at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, before transferring to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, it’s great to see the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company showcasing it during their current season at the Garrick Theatre. As we’re bombarded with highly racist remarks by would-be American president, Donald Trump, along with the Academy Awards having been openly criticised for not recognising more black actors, it’s more timely than ever.
Delivering a sensitive yet hugely entertaining portrayal, Adrian Lester positively shines as the hot-tempered Aldridge, with a layered performance which offers a complex psychological insight into both the man and the performer. You’re not really sure if Aldridge is all that likeable in the opening scenes, when he displays an almost obnoxious pride and arrogance on being interviewed by Polish journalist Halina Wozniak (Caroline Martin), yet all this is later explained and justified in the flash backs which show the persecution which the actor endured during the earlier part of his career.
First meeting him in Poland, the transformative Lester takes us on the courageous journey of how Aldridge became one of the most revered actors in Europe by the mid 19th century, with the greater part of the play being a flash back to him being cast as Othello by Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott) in London in 1833, when he replaced Edmund Kean, regarded as the greatest actor of his generation, who was suddenly taken ill on the Covent Garden stage. Couple this with the fact that the public were rioting in the streets over the abolition of slavery and you begin to understand why the atmosphere between Aldridge and his white cast members was so tense; confidently directed by Indhu Rubasingham, with Amy Morgan as Betty Lovell and Mark Edel-Hunt as Edmund Kean’s pompous and racially abusive son Charles among the all round exemplary performances.
Almost all the re-imagined action takes place either back stage or during rehearsals and provides a fascinating glimpse into, not only the politics of the day, but the flamboyant and quite frankly hammy performance styles then adopted by actors, another reason why Aldridge, who preferred more naturalistic characterisations, might not have been welcomed with open arms by his co-stars, that is apart from his leading lady Ellen Tree (the exceptional Charlotte Lucas) who is the only one of his colleagues open to new ideas and willing to defend whilst the others attack.
However, when Aldridge gets a bit too carried away with making Othello’s violent treatment of Desdemona as realistic as possible, despite Ellen shrugging off the bruises, it is all just a step too far for the Victorian theatre-going public and becomes the feeble excuse on which Laporte basis his dismissal of the star. And having gloried in this role being the break of his career, Aldridge is flung out on his ear after just two performances, irrevocably damaging his future on the London stage.
A poignant conclusion to a true story encompassing a huge diversity of emotions. On that occasion West End theatre sadly failed to break down the barriers of ignorance which it is nowadays so famous for doing, whilst productions as fine and thought-provoking as Red Velvet, continue to fly the flag for the true power of live theatre and its ability to (hopefully) leave audience members a damn sight more conscious of the plight of humanity than when they entered the theatre. It’s not only a fitting tribute to Aldridge, but all the courageous black actors that have come after him.
Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0HH, until 27th February 2016. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.