|Photo by Hugo Glendinning|
RED VELVET is a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti that has already had a season in London at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012 (2014) and later at St Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2014. Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has included the production Directed by Indhu Rabasingham and starring Adrian Lester into their season of plays.
The play tells of part of the career of an African/American actor, Ira Aldridge, in the middle years of the 1800's. Specifically of his British debut at Covent Garden, with the Edmund Kean Company, in 1833, in the role of Othello.
RED VELVET is bookended with a fraught scene between an older Aldridge, as he prepares for a performance of a 'white face' King Lear, and a reporter, seeking the reason for his lack of English opportunities since that first engagement. Testily, Aldridge takes us back in time and we observe what the impact of Aldridge's intense acting style had on the stage traditions of the era. We watch the relative 'naturalism' that Aldridge brings to his performance in contrast to the 'semaphored' vocal and physical techniques of the style of performing of the 1800's - and of his attempts to teach the suspicious and resistant others a new way. As well we learn of the shock of the audience at a black actor interacting with a white actress, Ellen Tree, in the tragic role of Desdemona on the stage of Covent Garden. Of how racial prejudices and slurs, compounded by the rising political tensions in the London world where the 'Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire' (August, 1833), was in debate in the Parliament, were the accepted manners of the times.
Essentially, the play is a familiar back-stage melodrama, that has had its political intents nuanced with the hindsight of the contemporary lens/gaze, by author, Ms Chakrabarti. We can watch the raw mess of the period and its social and political prejudices with a comfortable belief that our society has moved on. Or, has it? We can breathe in with shock at the verbal vulgarities of the period, and be amused at the 'histrionic' form of performance of the Kean Theatre Company, that has been 'created' by the company of actors under the guidance of the Director, Ms Rabasingham. It is a fine bourgeois entertainment.
The material/content of RED VELVET is well enough 'packaged' but it survives our scrutiny, and claims our patience, because of the thrilling commitment of the performers. The acting is better than the play. To begin, it is worth the time and money to observe Adrian Lester, who carries a charismatic presence of great physical elegance and ease along with a vocal instrument of liquid mellowness and power, informed by a high intelligence, presenting a reading of the text with a purposeful clarity and vision of the dignity and talent of Ira Aldridge: Aldridge commanding and demanding with the temerity and arrogance of a self belief in his talent confronting the conventions of the time. His pursuit of his artistry despite the hostile personal politics surrounding him attempting to obstruct him.
The production is not a lone star turn, Emun Elliott, as the Manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, Pierre Laporte, gives a brilliantly vigorous and balanced performance, as does Mark Edel-Hunt, as the bewildered and culturally prejudiced, Charles Kean. Charlotte Lucas, as Ellen Tree; Caroline Martin, in a double as the troublesome reporter, Halina Wozniak, and as Ira Aldridge's wife, Margaret, too, make a mark. The other supporting players are immaculate in their contributions. Everything is vigorously telling in its offered choices for the audience.
The Design of a backstage and stage space, by Tom Piper, like his costumes, have the selected ease of part period/contemporary auras and are of a simple enough statement for us to endow, conjure, imaginatively, the worlds of the playwright's intentions. Lighting is by Oliver Fenwick. The Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Composition by Paul Englishby.
Adrian Lester has ben nominated as Best Actor for the 2016 Olivier Awards. Well deserved.