Rubasingham begins tenure with a hit

The 240-seat Tricycle, one of London’s most singular off-West End theaters, has been punching well above its weight for decades thanks largely to the 28-year stewardship of a.d. Nicolas Kent, who stepped down in May. Small wonder, then, that new a.d. Indhu Rubasingham admits to a slight degree of relief that her first show has proved an immediate hit.

“Red Velvet,” which opened Oct. 16, has won a slew of excellent reviews, and generated buzz on Twitter and beyond and is coming close to selling out its entire run.

The Tricycle is best-known to most on the U.S side of the Pond as the home of “The 39 Steps,” the Hitchcock spoof that played two years on Broadway, toured globally, and is still in the West End, grossing some £20 million ($32 million) so far.

But in the U.K., the company is known as London’s foremost political theater with two strands of plays. Most famously, there is the long-running series of “tribunal plays,” headline-grabbing productions that re-enact verbatim accounts of behind-closed-doors political enquires. And then there are its collective dramas on such hot topics as “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” a cycle of 12 plays investigating 170 years of history that toured to New York and played Washington, D.C., perfs at the specific invitation of the Pentagon.

Rubasingham’s widely supported arrival indicates a potential shift, with a less dogmatic tone to the politics and more diverse voices. But there is some degree of continuity as well.

On the face of it, “Red Velvet” looks like business as usual with a typical mix of race and politics that fits snugly in a venue that is in London’s most ethnically diverse borough, where around 90 languages are spoken in local schools. It was, however, a risk.

The politics have been woven into a more traditional bio-drama that uncovers the once notorious, now forgotten African-American actor Ira Aldridge, who caused a sensation on London’s premier stage in Covent Garden in 1833. The writer was a risk, too: actress-turned-scribe Lolita Chakrabarti. “Red Velvet” is the world preem of her first full-length play.

The only known quantity the play had going for it was bankable lead Adrian Lester, a stage veteran who is also the star of hit BBC series “Hustle.”

While happy that critics noted the shrewdness of Rubasingham’s choice for her debut, “For me, it’s a personal statement about anyone who has been seen as an outsider, as well as being about what our industry can do, and still does, and the frustrations that all that engenders,” she says.

That tension between so-called “outsiders” and “the mainstream” are at the heart of her programming, she adds. “I’m interested in the diversity of voices. I don’t want that to be a tokenistic gesture. The norm will be diverse, not the occasional slot.”

That’s certainly borne out by the next show Rubasingham is staging and will direct. “Paper Dolls,” which begin previews in February, is an adaptation by Philip Himberg (a.d. of Sundance Institute’s theater program) of Tomer Heymann’s award-winning documentary about a group of Filipino immigrants in Tel Aviv who, six days a week, work as caregivers to elderly Orthodox Jewish men. On the seventh day, they are a drag act.

The ability to program such an ambitious an opening slate is the result of government subsidies. On top of box office and sponsorship, the Tricycle receives around £900,000 ($1.44 million) per year in local and national government grants.

This, she argues, is vital for a healthy artistic climate: “We’re not wholly dependent on box office.” That’s why, she adds, British theater has been a leader in the caliber of writing and its accent on formal experimentation, leading to such international hits as “Jerusalem” and “War Horse.”

“Without subsidy, not only will we kill off the art form, but rises in prices will make theater inaccessible to only the entitled and the privileged,” she adds. Top price at the Tricycle is $35.50.

Prior to taking up the a.d. post, Rubasingham had been happily pursuing a flourishing career as a freelancer — including Tricycle credits such as “The Great Game,” which she co-directed with Kent, as well as helming the U.K. preem of Lynn Nottage’s caustic comedy “Fabulation” and a string of other shows.

She says she approached the a.d. gig with some trepidation. “I was worried that it might pollute my pure art,” she says with a laugh. “But it turns out that being able to program what you believe in, and to be able to implement a bigger vision about the potential impact of theater, is a real joy.”

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