Watching Red Velvet at The Tricycle a weekend or two ago, I was amazed that neither I nor EaZyD had ever heard of Ira Aldridge, a 19th century African American who was one of the great Shakespearean actors of his day; he’s even got a memorial plaque at Stratford - one of 33 actors to be so acknowledged and the only African American.
Adrian Lester plays Ira Aldridge and his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, wrote the script. In an interview in The Guardian, Indhu Rubasingham, The Tricycle’s artistic director, said that the play:
'... works on many levels, which is why I wanted it as my opening at the Tricycle. It's partly about politics in theatre and what we need to do to make theatre relevant. It's about how, in spite of obstacles, talent shines through. This man – in a period when slavery still existed in America and we were debating here whether to get rid of slavery in the colonies – was on the Covent Garden stage in one of only two theatres to have a royal patent.'
She adds that Aldridge, who was born in New York in 1807, became the highest-paid actor in Russia. When he died on tour in Poland in 1867 he was given a state funeral. "He's a role model," says Rubasingham. "I hope young people will see the play and go, 'Wow, if he can do it… ' For we are all full of self-doubt about whether we belong: are we inside or outside?"
Wow, EaZyD and I were blown away - surprised by a subject new to us, impressed by script and performances and gobsmacked that in the early part of the 19th century, with all of the obstacles of overt racism, geography and finances, this incredible individual achieved so much acclaim and fame on European stages.
The scene just before the interval, with Lester as Othello playing opposite a white actress as Desdemona, was so powerful in dynamic and staging, as was the final scene when Lester ‘whites up’ to play Lear. There may be a couple of minor quibbles to be made overall but I haven’t been so enthralled at the theatre for a very long time.
It’s on until 24 November 2012; The Tricycle is very wheelchair friendly; if you are able to get there, go.