Garrick Theatre, London – until 27 February 2016
as part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season
RED VELVET: DEEP AND RICH AS EVER
This was my third visit to Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, starring her husband the matchless Adrian Lester. I liked it from the start, as everyone else did; was please to be one of those who voted both Chakrabarti and Lester their awards at the Critics’ Circle a couple of years ago. I called it “sharp and entertaining”, and was delighted by the tribute to a largely forgotten theatre hero: Ira Aldridge, a black American actor who in the 1830’s, even before slavery was banned, replaced the ailing Edmund Kean as Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
For two nights the “negro” strangled the milk-white Desdemona onstage before shocked, racist Victorian opinion stopped him. It is always fascinating to observe how much extreme racism has an element of sexual dread in it, a white man’s fear of the powerful black: living in South Africa as a teenager for an awful year, I remember that well. And you’ll find it too in that splendid musical Memphis.
Anyway, I loved Lester’s performance – who wouldn’t? – and enjoyed the secondary theme – amusingly illustrated – of how acting was moving from Kean’s declamatory, stylized style towards more naturalistic and passionate performances. Thinking back, I remembered those things, and also moment when an embarrassed cast suddenly realize that the manager has bravely cast Aldridge and that he is black. I appreciated, too, the slyly feminist device of book-ending of the play with a scene in Poland as a young woman reporter, herself underrated and patronized, inveigles herself in to interview the aged actor whose successes across Europe never quite wiped out the memory of humiliation in London. I remembered the final scene when we see with a jolt that even this victory has required him, nightly, to “white-up” grotesquely with panstick to play King Lear, and the apposite rage of his final “I’ll not weep!” and threat of “the terrors of the earth”.
But seeing it yet again, and on the far side of Adrian Lester’s stunning and thoroughly modern Othello at the National Theatre – and, what is more – in one of those plushy Victorian theatres where it all happened – I can confirm again that as sometimes happens the play has grown bigger: stronger, more remarkable, finding deeper feeling in the deep red velvet folds of bygone theatricalia. There is now a more shocking magic in Aldridge’s deep, dark dignity and bitter banked-down rage; more charm and mischief of his lighter moments and the edgy intelligence of his discussions with his co-star Desdemona : once again a splendid, sparky Charlotte Lucas giving Miss Tree a courage and sexiness while maintaining our understanding that she has grown up Victorian. There’s real brilliance as the two meld stylized 1830s mannerisms with real emotion in the terrifying handkerchief scene which closes the first half. And there’s fascination – for us theatre anoraks – in comparing it with Lester’s interaction a couple of years back with his modern Desdemona, Olivia Vinall…
Mark Edel-Hunt is splendidly affronted as young Charles Kean, as is Emun Elliott as poor Laporte, the manager. There is real power and misery in Aldridge’s final row with Laporte, and generosity in the author’s letting him express the frustration of those who, faced with a moral choice, decide to keep their job rather than be Spartacus. Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a jewel in this Branagh season: we should all be grateful.
Box Office: 0844 482 9673
Online Bookings: http://www.branaghtheatre.com to 27 feb