In 1833, the year the Abolition of Slavery Act was finally passed in the United Kingdom, the African-American actor Ira Aldridge played the title role in Othello at the Theatre Royal in London’s Covent Garden. Lolita Chakrabarti’s debut play, Red Velvet (which ran to great acclaim at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012 and is now being revived there prior to its upcoming Broadway transfer), movingly examines the reactions to Aldridge’s appearance as the Moor, encouraging us to question not only how far we’ve come since then but also the role of theatre within the social and cultural fabric of our lives, both then and now.
Aldridge’s casting was met with racist remarks, not only from within the company, but also – devastatingly – in the press: The Times printed that ‘owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to speak English’. The general outcry forced the theatre to ‘go dark’ for the first time. Yet it wasn’t just Aldridge’s colour that caused disruption: his more realistic, natural approach to acting, in stark contrast to the more ‘domestic’ and ‘teapot style’ of his contemporaries, also caused upheaval within the company.
There are some incredibly funny scenes of the actors rehearsing with Aldridge prior to his first performance – their completely incompatible methods put them in hilariously awkward situations – and Red Velvet offers fascinating insight into the development of the craft of acting. Yet, in these scenes, Chakrabarti also intelligently opens up many questions on the nature of theatre: on the one hand, Aldridge believed that theatre should ‘confront life’, but most of his fellow cast felt that the theatre was ‘an art, away from reality’. Chakrabarti’s Aldridge is passionate about chance and possibility, wants to use truth to inform the depths and heights of emotion, and does not want to be ‘strangled’ by rules. ‘Theatre is about getting under your skin,’ he says, it’s about ‘progress’ and is a ‘political act’. Apart from Ellen Tree (the actress playing Desdemona), the rest of the cast are shocked at his ‘blind, misguided liberalism,’ and are more concerned with the art of presenting ‘quality spoken drama’ than doing anything that will cause the audience to question their lives or the world in which they find themselves.
Of course, this prompts us to question the state of contemporary theatre, and to examine ourselves for prejudice: how do we feel about black actors playing Othello, for example, or how uncomfortable do we want to feel when we attend a play; are we happier when it reinforces our own world view? There has been much talk recently about opportunities for women in theatre – and in the arts in general – and whenever the Academy Awards roll around the debate about the lack of nominees from ethnic minorities returns. Yet also of vital importance are questions of accessibility to the theatre, audience demographics and ticket prices. Are we doing enough as a society to encourage and develop greater access, and are we fostering diversity not only in terms of the actors on stage but also among writers, directors, producers and the message of the plays themselves? While we might feel we’ve come a long way since the 1833 of Chakrabarti’s play, and are perhaps feeling pleased that we no longer share the same opinions as our Victorian forebears, we should really be thinking about how far we still have to go.
Adrian Lester is on top form as Ira Aldridge, in both stages of his life. He is nimble and energetic as the passionate, intelligent – and threatening – young actor, and yet brilliantly conveys the moment Aldridge’s initial hope and confidence gives way to disillusionment and despair in the face of ugly, outspoken racism, sewing the seeds of bitterness and anger that characterise him as an old man. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree and Oliver Ryan as Charles Kean: Lucas’s Ellen is quick-witted and something of a match for Aldridge, recognising that he might just be onto something with his approach to both acting and the theatre, and Oliver Ryan is brilliant as the fastidious, jealous and incredibly conservative Kean – son of the famous actor Edmund – who simply cannot come to terms with Aldridge’s presence and is eventual reduced to a state of incomprehensible spitting.
Apart from one or two obvious anachronisms – reminding us that this is Chakrabarti’s first play – and a fight scene towards the end that is poorly choreographed and executed, Red Velvet is a brilliant piece of theatre. Not only is the cast fantastic and the plot completely gripping, but the writing is both subtle and intelligent, offering a challenging meditation on our society, change and prejudice.