new era at the Tricycle - Indhu Rubasingham is only the third
artistic director, succeeding Ken Chubb and the incumbent of 28 years,
Nicolas Kent - is marked with a splendidly repainted front-of-house,
all reds and greens and twinkling lights, and a play about the
Most impressively, it’s marked by a powerhouse
performance from Adrian Lester, warming up for his Othello at the
National next year with a smouldering, righteous impersonation of the
19th century black American classical actor Ira Aldridge, the “African
Roscius,” precursor of Paul Robeson, who settled in England and played
famously around the provinces and across Europe.
his fame and success, he was the most notable theatrical victim of
racial prejudice and the practice of tragic roles such as Othello played
by white actors in “black face” when it came to the major
So Lolita Chakrabarti’s enjoyable, serviceable
play, which Rubasingham (with designer Tom Piper) stages on bare
boards with a false gilded proscenium and red velvet swagging, homes in
on a flash point moment at Drury Lane in 1833, when Aldridge was called
up by the French theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare) to
replace the dying Edmund Kean as Othello.
are aghast, the reviews patronising, and his own betrayal complete when,
in the course of a coruscating show-down, Laporte shifts his ground
from defending the theatre board’s decision to discontinue his
engagement to an attack on the actor’s style of showing passion without
It boils down to the “horror” of revealing
his true nature, and the realism of his assault on Desdemona - played
with the full consent of Charlotte Lucas’s slyly maternal and comely
Ellen Tree - is brandished as another symptom of his inherent barbarism.
He’s treated, in fact, like the character he plays.
is the core of the play, and there’s a lot of fun in pointing up the
contrast between Aldridge’s passion and the “big house” gestural posing
of Simon Chandler’s wonderfully effete and funny Brabantio and
Ferdinand Kingsley’s bendy-limbed Roderigo; but the narrative
framework is shaky and the dramaturgy confusing.
died in 1867 on tour in Poland, and that’s where the play starts. He’s
preparing to go on as Lear when he’s cornered by a pushy local
journalist (bright new LAMDA graduate Rachel Finnegan) whose own
feminist struggle becomes a belated parallel issue in the play as, at
the end, Aldridge “whites up” for his first entrance.
feel a new play starting, not an old one finishing. And Finnegan
disappears inside the play proper as Aldridge’s unexplained white wife
(he was married to her for forty years; surely some big gap here?) and a
virtually indistinguishable Drury Lane actress. Still, a lively start,
and it’s good to be reminded of Lester’s pedigree, if not exactly