REVIEW: Red Velvet, Garrick Theatre ✭✭✭

Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
The company of Red Velvet. Photo: Johan Persson

Red Velvet
The Garrick Theatre
2nd February 2016
3 stars
Book Tickets For Red Velvet

When a prolific actor performs a famous role, it may be perceived in light of various metatextual elements. For instance, countless actors have played Hamlet, and characters informed by Hamlet, thus creating an intriguing dialogue between both performances. In Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, Adrian Lester takes this to extraordinary new levels. He plays Ira Aldridge, the first black performer to appear as Othello on the London stage, less than three years after his critically acclaimed Othello at The National Theatre. To add further complexity, we see Lester, as Ira Aldridge playing Othello, performing Act 3 Scene 4 (“Oh, hardness to dissemble!”) – a thrillingly layered experience.

Red Velvet takes place in 1833, during the rehearsal period and subsequent run of Ira Aldridge’s publically acclaimed, but critically panned period as Othello. After the great Edmund Kean collapses on stage whilst performing the role, Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott), the manager of Covent Garden Theatre, replaces him with his old friend. This is met with bemusement by the rest of the cast, not least Charles Kean (Mark Edel-Hunt), Edmund’s son, who believes that as Iago, he is his father’s natural successor. Yet Aldridge’s strikingly modern methods win over the rest of the cast, not least Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), his Desdemona and Kean’s fiancé. Yet, in the year where slavery was abolished in the UK, Aldridge’s appearance on the London stage proved highly divisive, and his unwillingness to compromise on his ‘aggressive’ performance threatens his relationship with Laporte.

Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Adrian Lester as Ira and Emun Elliot as Pierre Laporte in Red Velvet. Photo: Johan Persson

It is hard to imagine a more intriguing piece of casting, and the little known story at the heart of the play promises a great deal. Yet whilst there is a lot to admire in Red Velvet, the play is uneven. It is often thought-provoking, and extremely witty, but the protagonist suffers from a lack of character development. When he joins the company, Ellen Tree remarks that “What insults [her] most about [their] profession is the attention given to the leading actor”. In fact, whilst Red Velvet reveals a great deal about Ira Aldridge the actor, we learn little about the man who steps off the stage.

Chakrabarti describes Aldridge as an “extremely brave, tenacious, uncompromising talent”, and Red Velvet captures this stage-life extremely well. Lester is terrific at conveying his perfectionism, and his exasperation at his fellow cast’s flamboyant performances offers an intriguing and amusing insight into the evolution of acting. The play also does a very good job of dramatising the cast’s thoughtlessly dismissive attitudes, “when I heard he was black in the reviews, I thought it was the mood!”, compared and contrasted with calculated attacks by critics. Hearing such dehumanising reviews of his Othello read aloud by a cast of white actors was an extremely powerful moment, and the hypocritical notion of a white actor ‘becoming Othello’ and a black actor ‘revealing their true self’ is explored to chilling effect.

Yet for all his intriguing qualities, Aldridge remains an oddly incomplete character. The framing device, which sees Polish journalist Halina (Caroline Martin) interview an elderly and bitter Aldridge, hints at how he was damaged by the ignorant attitudes of his day. In the play’s opening scene, he belittles her for inaccurate statements about his private life – notably believing he has children with his now deceased wife, Margaret (also played by Martin). This culminates in Aldridge calling Halina “artless, charmless and disrespectful”, even though she has professed nothing but admiration for him. This suggests that the play will deconstruct the events that lead to Aldridge’s toxic cynicism, but much is told to us, rather than shown.

Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree and Amy Morgan as Betty Lovell in Red Velvet. Photo: Johan Persson

We see glimpses of Aldridge’s off-stage life through an examination of his relationships with women. When Margaret appears in his dressing room on Othello’s opening night, we hear the loving ways in which they look out for each other when confronted by an intolerant society. Coupled with the actors’ sweetly natural chemistry, this becomes a very touching and humanising scene. Yet Margaret does not reappear, and the audience do not achieve closure about the impact of this important relationship. This is further problematised by Laporte’s later accusation that Aldridge has behaved inappropriately with Ellen Tree, in which he remarks that Aldridge is known for his romantic dalliances. This is informed by a memorable first act punchline about his long term mistress, but we see nothing on stage to give this dramatic resonance. In turn, Laporte’s passionate, and seemingly truthful speech (brilliantly delivered by Elliott) about how difficult Aldridge is to work with is undermined by what we see of him in rehearsals, where he is a model professional.

Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Adrian Lester in Red Velvet. Photo: Johan Persson

Nevertheless, there are some truly excellent moments which suggest Chakrabarti has a great future as a writer. Aldridge’s passion for his craft is never in doubt, and Lester plays his righteous anger at his mistreatment, “No-one bats an eye when Grandma plays Juliet!”, to perfection. In turn, the scene in which the elderly actor prepares to play Lear is beautifully observed, with Lester and Martin utilising the stripped down dressing-room set to the full.

The script is also at times extremely funny. Simon Chandler is a comic revelation as self-involved actor Bernard Warde, and Edel-Hunt’s Charles Kean and Alexander Cobb’s Henry Forester do a tremendous job of illuminating the absurdly melodramatic acting methods of the day – much like the actors Mossop and Keanrick from Blackadder the Third. Chakrabarti’s experience as an actor is observable not only here, but in the on-stage examination of Othello and Desdemona’s motivations. Lucas and Lester are excellent together, their suspicions of each other evolving naturally into a close working partnership. Indeed, I would have liked to have seen more of Ellen Tree. Her well-observed relationship with Charles Kean offered a brief, but intriguing dialogue about the difficulties faced by female professionals. This, coupled with Halina’s hazing by male journalists, could have been developed more fully, to act as a stronger analogue with Ira’s mistreatment.

Red Velvet touches on a number of very difficult subjects regarding race, and does so in a compelling and thoughtful manner. The play is generally well written – with a number of excellent touches – and this production contains a host of fine performances, not least Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge. Nevertheless, Aldridge is an incomplete protagonist, and too many aspects of his life are told to us, rather than shown. This means that, in spite of the play’s many strong qualities, it cannot achieve its full dramatic potential.

Red Velvet runs until February 27 at the Garrick Theatre

Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree. Photo: Johan Persson
Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Emun Elliot as Pierre Laporte. Photo: Johan Persson
Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre
Adrian Lester in Red Velvet. Photo: Johan Persson
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