The latest offering from Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick is Tricycle Theatre’s award-winning production of Red Velvet, starring Adrian Lester as renowned Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge – and it’s safe to say Sir Ken has another hit on his hands.
Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, the play imagines the events of 1833, as Aldridge is brought in to replace Edmund Kean, who’s collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. The young actor brings with him an unorthodox acting style, which goes for realism as opposed to the posturing ‘teapot school of acting’ – but what bothers his fellow cast members – and the critics – even more is the idea of a black actor playing (gasp) a black character.
The play may be set 200 years ago, and of course nobody bats an eye any more at the thought of a black man playing Othello (in fact, it would probably be much weirder if they didn’t). But that doesn’t mean the issues at the heart of Red Velvet have gone away, and all too often the colour of an actor’s skin is still of more interest than whether they’re any good at their job – as we saw only too clearly in the recent reaction to Noma Dumezweni’s casting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And so, while we might have moved on from the days of actors ‘blacking up’, not to mention the kind of casual racism that draws audible gasps from the audience at the Garrick, this is still an incredibly relevant piece of work.
Adrian Lester gives a spell-binding performance as both the young and old Ira Aldridge, ageing 30 years in an instant, into a sad, sick old man. He’s not always entirely likeable – there are hints about his various extramarital dalliances, one of them possibly with Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who plays Desdemona in the production. And alongside his appealing passion for his art is the arrogant belief that the experienced cast must do things his way, whether they like it or not. But these flaws only make the man more real, and the fact that he can still break our hearts as he begs his friend Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott) to save his reputation, is testament to Lester’s layered and compelling performance.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the play is also surprisingly funny, with many of the laughs supplied by Simon Chandler as nonplussed actor Bernard Warde, and Alexander Cobb as the idealistic Henry Forrester. Mark Edel-Hunt indulges in a fabulously childish tantrum (giving a couple of audience members a bit of a start), but becomes an altogether more serious figure the following morning, when he takes a little too much pleasure in reading aloud the negative reviews. And Charlotte Lucas shines as Ellen Tree; she has her own battles to fight as a woman in the arts, and does so with great spirit and humour.
Indhu Rubasingham’s direction sees the cast rarely leaving the stage, instead quietly observing and reacting to scenes in which they don’t appear from the wings, and the set changes are beautifully choreographed by Imogen Knight, so the action flows seamlessly. Act 1 takes a little while to hit its stride, with a conversation between the elderly actor and a Polish journalist leading into a lengthy acting lesson from the younger Aldridge. But it ends on a high with Lester/Aldridge’s intense performance as Othello, carrying us through into the passionate and gripping scenes of Act 2.
Red Velvet is a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose name and achievements have faded into relative obscurity. But it’s also highlighting an issue that should have faded with him – or rather, instead of him. The powerful final scene, in which a frail and elderly Aldridge prepares to play King Lear, is shocking but perfect, summing up the heart of the story in a single, haunting image. I’ve no idea how historically accurate the play is, but it certainly makes its point.