Topical Manhandling: Red Velvet @BranaghTheatre
Red Velvet tells the story of Ira Aldridge, a black actor who plays Othello at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1833. It's fascinating to watch Adrian Lester, playing a man playing Othello. And it's evocative seeing the drama unfold in a theatre close to the period that it adds to the drama.
The piece is set at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, collapses on stage while playing Othello. As a result of too much hard living. His son who is playing Iago expects to step up into the role. But impresario Pierre Laporte gives the role to Aldridge, who had been touring in London.
The context of the piece is important. It is probably one of the few times where buying a programme in advance (even if it costs an incredible £5) will help in the appreciation of the show as there are several essays on the events happening at the time. The Slavery Abolition Act was being debated in Parliament. Acting was beginning to evolve into more naturalistic styles. These debates crackle in the first half of the piece as the cast assume the various points of view.
Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree, his opposite is more than his match. She critiques his performance and doesn't flinch at his suggestions to manhandle her.
In the second half, as the press criticism and backlash forces his sacking, the piece becomes more predictable. He was too much for audiences. He manhandled Ellen too much for London tastes. All this comes out through a sparring dialogue Aldridge has with Laporte (played by Emun Elliott).
Aldridge never returned to the London stage and it is as if you supposed to feel that it was a loss to his career. But given Aldridge had a successful career throughout Europe, perhaps it was London's loss.
Still this is a minor reservation. The production looks great and the piece will no doubt inspire many audience members to dash home and read up on West End theatre history. The theatres may have changed (or burned down several times) since the period but many exist.
The timing of the piece feels relevant too. With debates about #OscarsSoWhite and colour blind casting, the piece is an opportunity to reflect on equality. And the endless struggle towards it. Historical drama has never felt more current...
Red Velvet is at the Garrick Theatre until 27 February. It's written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Indhu Rubasingham.
First impressions with @Johnnyfoxlondon over red velvety ice cream ensue...