RED VELVET photo Hugo Glendinning
Red Velvet is not just another “story about slavery” this is about our desire as human beings to be validated and recognised as equal based on our talents.
Red Velvet is written by Lolita Chakrabarti with direction by Indhu Rubasingham and stars Adrian Lester (read interview) as Ira Aldridge.
The scene is set as we enter the dressing room of the great Ira Aldridge where Polish journalist Halina Wozniak (Caroline Martin) strikes up the courage to interview leading actor Ira Aldridge (Lester). It is through her seemingly innocent, if a little insensitive questions that cause the catalyst of this retrospective insight into Aldridge’s life.
Set in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. A young black African-American actor, Ira Aldridge has been asked to take over the role. As the public riot in the streets over the abolition of slavery the reaction of his new cast mates is just a small reflection of the much wider public sentiment, which occurs when the play goes live.
Red Velvet serves as hard-hitting reminder of the impact of socio-political issues in every aspect of society including theatre, a space that to all intents and purposes should be where we can escape the realities of life.
Red Velvet serves as hard-hitting reminder of the impact of socio-political issues in every aspect of society including theatre.
What I loved about the play were the perfectly timed comedic moments, which offset the true tragic nature of racism and the legacy of slavery. At a time when the debate about diversity rages on this play is not only timely but also necessary. As we laugh at the absurdity of the attitudes of that time as expressed in Red Velvet we must also laugh at the absurdity of the lack of diversity on our mainstream screens and stages. Whilst this is a review and not a political opinion piece, Chakrabarti has courageously challenged the status quo with this piece of work. This is not just another “story about slavery” this is about our desire as human beings to be validated and recognised as equal based on our talents.
When Pierre (Emun Elliott) and Ira (Lester) face each other in the penultimate scene we get a glimpse of the sheer pain that comes with being denied acknowledgement and recognition as a black man when the world still classifies being black, being African as less than human. Lester’s portrayal of Aldridge was emblematic of the frustration that many black actors feel throughout their careers. Even when they seem to have allies on the “other side” they can never truly feel safe, something that Connie (Ayesha Antoine) reminds Aldridge in a touching moment as she tries to share her own experience of discrimination.
Whilst the entire cast was exceptional Mark Edel-Hunt’s portrayal of Charles Kean was particularly interesting and bold. His overt racism whilst uncomfortable to watch, felt safer than the supportive silence that surrounded Aldridge. Is it not better to know where one stands in the face of adversity than to get too relaxed and comfortable in a space that is not truly made to uplift you?
Red Velvet is a timely, well-written triumph.
Adrian Lester’s depiction of Ira Aldridge was all encompassing; one would expect nothing less from such a superb actor. His performance of Othello’s soliloquy of betrayal was a pleasure to watch but it was the portrayal of Aldridge, who still carries the weight of pain and disappointment, which stands out.
Indhu Rubasingham’s direction was impeccable, allowing room for a truly engaging performance, bringing out the best from each and every member of the cast.
Red Velvet is a timely, well-written triumph. I hope people see beyond the great acting, script and direction and take the true message and lesson away from this work.
Info: Red Velvet is at the Garrick Theatre until February 27, 2016 | See listing
Adrian Lester - interview
Red Velvet, Tricycle Theatre - review