When Ira Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies. Aldridge is the real-life African-American actor portrayed by Adrian Lester in “Red Velvet,” the fascinating play written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti in a production by London’s exquisite Tricycle Theatre now opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20th. It manages not just to dramatize a little-known 19th century figure but provide insight into the art of acting and of theater.
Aldridge was a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles.
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Chakrabarti, an actress who with Lester first became interested in Aldridge in 1998, has focused the actor’s vast story on two pivotal moments in his career. The bulk of “Red Velvet” dramatizes his assumption of the role of Othello at London’s famed and prestigious Covent Garden in 1833, when he was 25 years old. The great tragedian Edmund Kean has suddenly taken ill, and the manager of Kean’s company, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O’Hare), hires Aldridge at the last minute to be Kean’s replacement. The other members of the company know him only by his reputation, if at all, and are astonished when he shows up.
“Oh my god: Black as your hat,” one says, out of his hearing.
“When I read ‘black’ in the reviews I presumed it was the mood,” says Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who is playing Desdemona.
Charles, Kean’s son (Oliver Ryan), who plays Iago in the Kean company’s production, is dead set against the new casting: “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks
to play the moor, half wits to play Caliban we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics? Then any drunken fool on the street will play Falstaff. You, my darling,” he says to Ellen, “will only be allowed to play what you are – too old for Juliet, too bland for the Queen!”
The playwright uses the various Kean company members’ reactions to explore an argument over theater that still exists – “theater is a political act, a debate of our times” versus “Acting is an art. Transformation is an art….People come to the theatre to get away from reality.”
What follows is a hilarious scene of the old style of acting, all exaggerated gestures and declamation. Then Aldridge coaches Ellen Tree in the new style – what everybody calls “the domestic style,” which involves actually looking at one another on stage, and expressing emotion.
Lester, known primarily in the United States for his starring role as the campaign manager opposite John Travolta in Mike Nichols’s film “Primary Colors,” also starred in British TV series “Hustle” and has racked up an impressive track record playing classical roles in his native England, including Othello in the National Theatre last year to great acclaim; the production was broadcast as part of NTLive to movie theaters throughout the United States. So when, after the comical rehearsal, Lester offers up a scene of Aldridge on stage as Othello, it is riveting.
The episode in Aldridge’s life is not a happy one, and “Red Velvet” makes it one long flashback, bracketed before and after by a scene 35 years later, when Aldridge, age 60, ill and clearly dying, is about to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland.
“Red Velvet” is directed by the artistic director of Tricycle, Indhu Rubasingham, who spent years helping to shepherd this play into production. Everything from the performances by the eight-member cast to the lighting to the costumes to the very makeup work to bring the story of Ira Aldridge to life — the obstacles he faced; what’s changed and what hasn’t about the theater in the past 200 years.
Like “The Great Game,” the terrific theatrical marathon about Afghanistan that Tricycle brought to New York a few years back, this play is unmistakably from a British perspective, despite its New York protagonist, with some references that the average New York theatergoer won’t get. The first scene is also conducted in German – but that is to emphasize how foreign the place where Aldridge is performing; it’s not strictly necessary to understand what the characters are saying. The play is most watchable when Lester is performing; I might have wished that he was on stage more frequently, but understand why it was necessary to show the reaction of his fellow actors among themselves (a stand-in for the reaction of society as a whole.) These brief lulls and inaccessible moments at worst create little hills that require patience to climb over in order to get to the next rich field. “Red Velvet” pays off with a last scene that is captivating, and thoroughly devastating, yet involves nothing more than something a stage actor – then and now – does for every performance.
I defy you to attend “Red Velvet” and not want to know more about Ira Aldridge. Here is an excerpt from the recently published third volume of Bernth Lindfors’ biography of Aldridge. “He initially toured with an experienced British troupe he recruited, but eventually he started performing with local actors and actresses who spoke their parts in their own language while he continued to deliver his lines in English. This bilingual collaboration worked well in Western Europe and introduced him to audiences in Hungary, Poland, and other East European terrtories he might not otherwise have reached. This venture abroad changed Aldridge as a performer.
“Audiences in Europe wanted to see him in Shakespearean roles rather than in the racial melodramas and farces that were popular in the British isles. As a consequence, Aldridge concentrated almost exclusively on performing as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III. In the course of his travels he won more major international awards and honors, often conferred by royalty, than any other actor of his day.”