Wyllie Longmore is a respected actor, director and teacher. Billed as ‘presented by’ seems an almost flippant premise when, the spoken word event in the Studio, is a mesmerising performance which communicates the equal joy and disappointment that both he and Ira Aldridge felt at being marginalised black actors rather than actors.
Aldridge, born in 1807 is ‘the world’s most celebrated interpreters of Shakespeare’, and has a plaque dedicated to him in Stratford-upon-Avon but is now largely and criminally forgotten. Longmore’s mission, this evening, is to conjure up his memory, his talent, his absolute passion for the theatre and to ask how it felt.
The lines are often blurred between Longmore and Aldridge in Maureen Lawrence’s writing and this is no bad thing. In the beginning there are stories of Aldridge’s past; landing in Liverpool as a son of freed slaves in 1820, singing for his supper in bars, and moving to London to seek his fame and fortune as an actor to be faced with signs on publican’s doors reading, ‘no blacks, no blacks, no blacks’. Later, he was praised by audiences and reviled by the critics – The Times stated that Shakespeare could not be spoken by those lips.
The beauty and difficulty of playing Othello is a wrangle between Aldridge and Longmore, where the former is consumed by the beauty, the latter struggles with stereotypes. Longmore then proffers the, ‘It is the cause…’ speech with such depth; he almost talks himself out of the problems.
The symbiosis between both actors’ experiences in wanting to be actor extraordinaire is compelling, moving and thoughtful,
‘It takes away my identity and makes me a thing.’ Longmore suggests to Aldridge, quoting one press review that Aldridge is, ‘a black blemish on the face of art’.
Aldridge is more philoshophical, entertaining the idea that however much he had hardships, however far afield he had to travel - all over Europe (he would often white up for parts to ‘expand his repertoire’) ‘I was always given a fair hearing’.
Wyllie Longmore is a man on a journey; the idea that however brilliant he is, it’s a journey of discovery, acceptance and, ultimately, really, really great drama.