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A CurtainUp London Review
To the rear of the stage is a beautiful, swagged red velvet theatre curtain and the cast bring in the props creating historical atmosphere. The elderly actor is reluctant to be interviewed and quite bombastic; after all he is the highest paid artist in Russia. The story of his career is framed by one of the Polish journalist breaking into a profession despite her gender.
The scene goes back more than 30 years to London where the great Edmund Kean is ill having collapsed onstage and was due to play the role of Othello, the Moor at Covent Garden. Kean’s son Charles (Ryan Kiggell) normally plays Iago and is ready to take the title role when Pierre Laporte (Eugene O’Hare), the manager says he has engaged another actor, an American who has had good reviews elsewhere. They are shocked when they discover that Ira Aldridge is a black actor, they had thought dark was an allusion to the style of the play. Set in the context of the debate on the abolition of slavery of 1833 in England and the colonies, Ira’s casting prompts a vehement reaction.
We are treated to a full rehearsal of the handkerchief scene. As the actors rehearse we see the stylised, gesture ridden school of declamatory acting used in the 2000 seat theatre. Ira Aldridge insists on playing the part realistically but the physicality of his acting and the alleged bruises left on Desdemona played by Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas) engenders terrible racism from the critics and results in the closure of the theatre. It is quite shocking and distressing to hear what was said at the time by the dehumanising newspaper critics. Wounded, Ira decides to leave London and will never play Covent Garden again but has a very good career on the European continent.
The play is stuffed full with theatrical pleasers and jokes with Ferdinand Kingsley as bit part actor Henry Forrester in wonderful striped trousers, networking to increase his opportunities and the very unsympathetic Kean nephew set against Aldridge from the off. We meet Ira’s English wife Margaret (Rachel Finnegan) and Pierre and Ira debate the public reaction to a realistic Othello. Indhu Rubasingham directs with many of the cast lining the edges of the stage, watching as if in rehearsal.
Adrian Lester will play Othello at the National directed by Nicholas Hytner next April and this performance will be eagerly anticipated given the context of Red Velvet. We see him as Ira Aldridge as a young actor, and as an old experienced one, painstakingly putting on white makeup and a white wig for the part of Lear. We hear about Ira’s passion for the theatre and for the realism of interpreting the text and his unwillingness to compromise his principles even for his friend Pierre. Charlotte Lucas is interesting as Ira’s Desdemona as she crosses her fiancé, a grumpy Charles Kean played by Ryan Kiggell. A black maid Connie (Natasha Gordon) observes from the wings.
Red Velvet made me want to know more about Ira Aldridge and I hope to see more of Lolita Chakrabarti’s writing in future.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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