Red Velvet tells the true story of African-American actor, Ira Aldridge (1807-67). The playwright (and actor) Lolita Chakrabarti brings this fascinating story to vivid life and her husband Adrian Lester plays the part of Aldridge.
The piece begins and ends in a theatrical dressing room, where Aldridge is preparing to play King Lear in the last year of his life. Lester beautifully captures the pained dignity and irritation of the ageing, ailing actor preparing to play Lear in white face paint not long before his own death.
The story then moves back in time to 1833 and to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Aldridge is drafted in to play Othello when Edmund Kean, the great Shakespearean actor collapsed during a performance.
What should have been a breakthrough for Aldridge became a setback that haunted him for the rest of his life, despite the fact that he was the recipient of many honours, and became the highest paid artist in Russia. This was because of the racist reviews by the British press along with the deep discontent from some of the actors in the theatre over the manager’s decision to replace Kean with a black performer.
Lester gives a strong impression of the power of Aldridge’s playing and stage presence. He thrillingly replicates the charisma of the young Aldridge and the idealistic passion of the twenty-six year old through to the weight of his weary disillusion towards the final chapter of his life.
Thankfully Lester has long-since broken the mould in roles that Aldridge did not get a stab at, and with a nice twist of fate starred as Othello at the National Theatre.
The poignancy of the story was beautifully told by Chakrabarti. Interestingly she took time to chat to the audience at the end of the performance and told the story of how the play had evolved. She first heard of Aldridge in 1998 and was determined to find out more, but there was little known about him. This was pre internet, and so her research and her quest to uncover his story took many years and across continents and finally cumulated in this wonderful story with the support of Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director at the Tricycle theatre and another woman on a mission “to draw in people who don’t go to the theatre” and her desire “to make the world a smaller place through theatre” Perhaps a goal she shared with Aldridge.
There are a lot of threads to the story but perhaps the one that stands out for me is: in spite of obstacles how talent shines through, this man in a period when slavery still existed in America and the British were debating whether to get rid of slavery in the colonies – was performing on a Covent Garden stage. His talent was supported by a determination to make his career happen and in time he has become recognised as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his day. An accolade duly awarded to Chakrabarti for her wonderful storytelling, to Rubasingham for bringing this play to stage and to Lester for bringing Aldridge to life.
The reviews I write are by way of reflecting on cultural experiences to include performing and visual arts that touched my heart and my mind and making sense of them in the context of learning and development in both community and work-place.
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