Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Racial Tensions

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Racial Tensions

Article excerpt

Red Velvet Tricycle, until 24 November The Revenger's Tragedy Hoxton Hall, until 10 November Covent Garden, 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest tragedian of his age, has collapsed while playing the title role in Othello at the Theatre Royal. His son, Charles, is all set to take over and has just prised the lid off a trusty tin of boot polish ready to smear dark grease all over his peachy white cheeks. But, instead, a black American actor, Ira Aldridge, is engaged to play the lead. Kean's company are aghast by this affront to their man's talent and authority. But his fiancee, Ellen Tree, who plays Desdemona, is smitten by the charismatic American and tries to embrace his realistic new emotional acting style.

This is the starting point for Lolita Chakrabarti's wonderful new play, Red Velvet, at the Tricycle theatre. The play's achievement is to animate the themes of racism without descending into preachiness or I-told-youso sermonising. The writer has deftly taken the Shakespearean issues of racial prejudice and sexual prurience and relocated them to Victorian Britain. And she finds all kinds of new resonances in Othello. Indu Rubasingham directs with a light touch.

Early scenes show the actors rehearsing in the stiff, grand manner of the Victorian theatre. Each speech is accompanied by formalised postures and elaborate hand movements that emphasise the emotional accents and climaxes. It all looks very false and silly to us. And it's hilarious to watch. But the play resists the temptation to mock the Victorians without mercy. It's all done with warmth and a sense of proportion.

When Aldridge played the Moor he scored an unexpected triumph and the doubts of his fellow actors were partially allayed. But then came the reviews. One paper hailed the arrival of 'a genuine nigger' at the Theatre Royal. 'His hair is woolly and his features, though African, are considerably humanised. But owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.'

The schemers pounced. Kean, who disliked Aldridge's physical roughness with his fiancee, hired a doctor to examine her arms.

Bruises were found. 'I was acting, ' she protested fruitlessly. Gossips whispered that she and Aldridge were conducting an affair.

Quite untrue, of course, but enough to get the show cancelled. Aldridge left for Europe where he forged a new career as one of the greatest of all Shakespearean interpreters.

Adrian Lester (Aldridge) has a seemingly infinite store of actorly blessings. …

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