Lolita Chakrabarti's play finally puts a remarkable actor back in the West End. The 19th century African American Ira Aldridge played Covent Garden for only a few nights in 1833 before the theatre went dark, causing him to stay away from the city's theatres for almost thirty years. Red Velvet revisits the short time Aldridge played Othello in London and the stir it caused.
Beginning at the end of his life in Poland, where he is playing King Lear, we meet the cantankerous and ill Aldridge who is interrupted in his dressing room by a young woman reporter, desperate for a scoop. Her focus on his time in London opens up old wounds and we are transported to thirty years previously, when he is asked by French theatre manager Pierre Laporte to step in for old acting legend Edmund Kean who has collapsed in the middle of playing Othello.
The reaction to Laporte's proposal is mixed and mostly horrendously racist, but the company are probably more open to change than most at the time would have been, which does not mean Aldridge gets an easy ride. It is the staring and the repulsed reaction when he dares to kiss his Desdemona's hand which highlights the awful, inbuilt prejudice. The show does goes on with Aldridge playing the moor, but when the notices entirely destroy his performance, he is forced off those illustrious boards.
The flashback format keeps things simple but although focusing on this point in Aldridge's life makes the play compact and snappy, there is a distinct sense that this is a tiny part of Aldridge's story. But by choosing this moment in Aldridge's career, Chakrabarti emblazons, as raw and red as the velvet curtains which surround the stage, the actor's betrayal on behalf of his peers. His talent is barely given a chance by his fellow actors, the reviewers and the board of the theatre, all because of the colour of his skin.
Adrian Lester gives an eye-wateringly good performance as Aldridge, full of peppy vigour when he arrives in Covent Garden, ready for the future. His turn as Othello, in the grand posturing classical actor style is ferocious and heartfelt. He makes the journey to old, bitter, ill Aldridge well, helped by director Indhu Rubasingham's dream-like scene changes which he watches with a sense of sad inevitability. Rubasingham's staging is tinged beautifully with a palpable sense of stage magic. Something that Aldridge clearly had in spades.
Red Velvet runs at the Garrick Theatre until February 27.