Adrian Lester as ‘Ira Aldridge’ in Red Velvet currently showing at The Garrick Thetare, London
The unique beauty of theatre, and absolutely in the case of the current 2016 revival of Red Velvet, is that you really, really have to see it for yourself! A film will deliver the same print of the same moments captured in time to different audiences. But the medium of theatre is more than just live, it is organic – a living thing which, from one performance to the next can never be the same.
Last Monday night, with Kenneth Branagh firmly focussing the spotlight on the soon-to-be-iconic trinity of Indhu Rubasingham, Lolita Chakrabarti and Adrian Lester, there was definitely an air of excited expectation down the Charing Cross Road. Taking in the sights from the red velvet seats which partially inspired the title, you are immediately struck by the absence of the usual stage or safety curtain. The space is authentically bedecked as backstage and dressing room areas and the rear of the set, which stretches as far back as any I’ve seen, is dressed with a semi-raised, equally inspirational red velvet curtain. It is kept, half in shadow, along with the set’s peripheral spaces, as they are slowly inhabited by the cast, like faded characters from a partial memory…
Adrian Lester is Ira Aldridge, in poor health and nearing the end of his life, yet preparing for a performance of King Lear in a Polish theatre. Much to his annoyance, he is disturbed by keen young journalist Halina Wozniak (Caroline Martin) desperate for an interview with him to make her name at her newspaper. Aldridge immediately dismisses her, only to find no defence against her passionate persistence to talk with him. He relents, partly because he wishes to wax lyrical about his craft and glory. But, Wozniak knows the story she wants – why he never returned to London’s prestigious West End in over 30 years.
1867 Lotz becomes 1833 London; the ailing Aldridge is transformed into the prime of his life, at the height of his artistic self-belief; and we find ourselves backstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden to the contemporaneous backdrop of London’s daily street demonstrations for the abolition of slavery in Britain and its colonies.
The Company – Charles Kean (Mark Edel-Hunt), Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), Betty Lovell (Amy Morgan), Bernard Ward (Simon Chandler) and Henry Forrester (Alexander Cobb) – discuss the health of Edmund Kean as they are silently waited upon by the ever-present maid, Connie (Ayesha Antoine). The Olivier of his day, Kean has recently suffered an on-stage collapse during their production of Othello. They are concerned for the veteran actor, but unworried for the production, since his son Charles, heretofore Iago should, by convention, step into the title role. French theatre Manager Pierre LaPorte arrives in a state of excitement to inform them that he has engaged another actor of some repute instead, under the guise of creating the least disruption to the Company whilst worrying for Kean Snr. Kean Jnr is disappointed, but willing to make way for a peer. Forrester is excited at the prospect, but unforthcoming, as he recognises the name of Ira Aldridge.
Ayesha Antoine as ‘Connie’ in ‘Red Velvet’ currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London
Red Velvet is the bitter-sweet reminiscence of Aldridge’s West End debut at 29, an honour and opportunity so rare as to seem too good to be true. It proves just so, and is cut short, never to be repeated.
Chakrabarti penned this play to deal with aspects of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and disillusionment, using the stark contradictions of clever juxtapositions. The themes that she explores are so very universal, and are not only particularly well-suited to this story, but also to the present day. There are right-thinking demonstrators outside, as the casual privilege of subjection continues within. There is the constant clashing of artistic freedom and the camaraderie of professional regard, as the external pressures of social norms and the gatekeepers of that art intervene. There is the obvious plight of Aldridge, rooted in his colour, and that of the women, rooted in their gender.
Aldridge and Laporte have one particular climactic exchange. But Chakrabarti surprises with who emerges on the higher ground, and whether that friendship survives is a satisfying question you are left pondering. Connie and Aldridge, two Africans who are opposites in many respects, come together in one poignant exchange which may well have had as much a lasting effect on Aldridge’s self-imposed 30 year exile as any of the more obvious reasons.
Rubasingham guides the story through a series of remarkably effective back-and-forth transformations. Starting with the jump in time and space from Lotz to London, we also experience the transition of an almost spent Aldridge returning to youthful vitality; Cobb and Chandler’s secondary roles as 1860s Casimir and Terence, respectively, and Martin’s secondary role as 1830s Margaret Aldridge are all-engrossing and an utter credit to the production. But, perhaps most intriguingly, Rubasingham’s gossamer-like touch changes to the dynamic of the ‘Fourth Wall’ as the audience, external to the story she quite deftly hands you your costume and you unconsciously don it as you are absorbed first as the 10th character, then as the audience within… and around and back again.
If you have ever stood on the brink of knowing you were qualified for a task only to witness it inexplicably crumble, Adrian Lester’s Aldridge will give it voice and afford you some measure of catharsis. His performance has been repeatedly described as a masterclass, and it is no exaggeration. Your predisposition to cherish him as the national treasure that he is, is tested by what is presented before you. This, above all, is a huge credit to him as an actor. The progressions from age to youth and back again, from everyday humour to life-changing decisions, from exuberance, through fury, to disenchantment are simply beautifully executed. You will laugh, cringe, clench and weep, and that could be at emotional turmoil, or a simple air or gesture. It is, at times, difficult to tear your eyes away from him.
There are significant periods when Lester is not present on-stage and you will find yourself seeking out his next possible entry point. But, this does not detract from the strength of his cast mates. Native Scot Elliott brilliantly channels Frenchman Laporte’s artistic passion and intensity, such that it doesn’t bounce, but ricochets around the house, especially before Lester’s maelstrom. Edel-Hunt inspires enough empathy for Charles Kean’s fortunes and petulant coping strategies to temper your dislike of him and his shortcomings as a man of honour. Lucas endows Ellen Tree with the true meaning of inquisitive art, and it is intensely satisfying to witness her blossoming into a collaborative co-star, as much a novelty to her as it is to play opposite a real black face. Chandler’s Bernard Ward is the voice of the Empire, but he also plays the promotion from chorus to co-star with exuberant relief, which hints at the self-doubt in his own artistic worth. Cobb’s Henry Forrester and Morgan’s Betty Lovell expertly play the natural balancing male and female innocence and light relief to great effect. Whilst Martin’s turn as 1830s Margaret was a necessarily minor part, that glimpse into the Aldridge marriage assumes weighty significance during her husband’s exchange with Laporte. She becomes a force of nature as young ambitious Wozniak frustrated with the status quo. And through it all, it is Antoine’s Connie, whose constant presence bears down on events in a most meaningful way.
Adrian Lester & Charlotte Lucas in ‘Red Velvet’ currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London
And so, to Othello. In our recent interview , Lester told us about the discomfiture people have and still do feel at the play, “They just don’t like it!” he said. This is interesting, since it is simply the age-old conundrum of jealous love and those who think they have something to gain by exploiting it. It is so very human that the French observe it as a defence of madness – a crime of passion! No, what makes Othello so disturbing is wonderfully observed in Red Velvet, and consummately executed by Lester, despite it being the playwright’s imagining of events. That he is not played by a white actor in blackface means that the audience cannot take refuge from the very real madness Shakespeare wrote into the piece. As Lester’s Aldridge gets what he desires – to inject a realism into their make-believe, to convey the meaning of what all the iambic pentameter says so prettily, he reaps the consequences.
A white actor in blackface touching and eventually killing a white actress is still a white actor, considered to be a gentleman underneath it all. Take away the blackface and replace it with a black face, and here is a black man defiling and killing a white woman. Belief is no longer suspended. This is the realisation of one of the most feared assaults projected onto the African race, given enough freedom. Phrases like ‘true nature’ take on a double meaning. To Aldridge, his is passion for the art. To the critics and even to Laporte it is simply a violent single-mindedness to fulfil a need. It reminded me of Cyd Charisse saying that her husband always knew who she’d been dancing with, as Gene Kelly always left her with bruises and Fred Astaire did not. Aldridge would never be afforded the assumption of being a gentleman underneath it all.
Red Velvet is labour of love, fed by the absolute passion Chakrabarti felt for bringing this story to the stage. Kenneth Branagh, as serendipity would have it, has been aware of the play from the days of its earliest completed treatment. His love of Shakespeare and theatre history meant that at his first given opportunity of staging Plays at The Garrick, he decided that restoring such a rare Shakespearean actor as Ira Aldridge to the West End was a foregone conclusion. This time, the London theatre press gave Aldridge, borrowing Adrian Lester’s presence, a standing ovation, which demanded 3 bows from the Company.
I would urge everyone to see this play, but you’ll have to hurry, as it is already halfway through its run and ends on February 27th 2016. Having now seen Lester perform just one scene from Othello I am filled with regret at having missed his own award-winning Othello at The National in 2013. I think everyone agrees, both plays are much the richer for it.
To book tickets, visit: http://www.branaghtheatre.com/red-velvet/
 – http://www.thebritishblacklist.com/tbb-descant-deb-original-rejection-blackface-adrian-lester-lolita-chakrabarti-ira-aldridge-west-end/
review of Red Velvet for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb