The still regrettably routine raising of eyebrows over color-blind casting indicates that issues surrounding skin color and casting are still very much alive. What’s less well known is that these arguments stretch far back. Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play “Red Velvet” retells the once notorious, now barely remembered story of African-American actor Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester), who caused a furor when he appeared on the London stage in 1833. Tension is not sustained throughout, but Indhu Rubasingham’s well-acted production remains focused on both past and present.
Although the drama is bookended by scenes set toward the very end of Aldridge’s life, the main subject is Aldridge’s memory of the scandal of his Covent Garden debut.
His reputation as a strong Shakespearean actor precedes him, which is why the other actors at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, are willing to countenance him being brought in to replace Edmund Kean, the leading actor of his day, who is at death’s door. But only the theater manager Pierre Laporte (Eugene O’Hare) and Henry (Ferdinand Kingsley), one of the actors, have actually seen him.
Unsurprisingly, at a point where there are riots in the streets over the abolition of slavery, Aldridge’s arrival causes everything from consternation — “When I read ‘black’ in the reviews I presumed it was the mood,” observes startled leading lady Ellen (Charlotte Lucas) — to open hostility.
The fact that Aldridge is to play the title role in “Othello” allows Chakrabarti to re-rehearse all the arguments about casting. Aldridge and Pierre believe in naturalism, an affront to the style of the time. Kean’s son Charles (an ideally pompous Ryan Kigell) sees acting as transformation, arguing that being black and playing a black man is therefore not acting. In the latter’s strongest moment he takes his position to its logical conclusion. “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, half-wits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics?”
Although the response to the press’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Aldridge is a misstep — the cast’s horror feels too much like a modern balking at racism — Chakrabarti elsewhere patiently charts Aldridge’s story with splashes of wit. Presumably intentional linguistic anachronisms are used to point up contemporary parallels, but they jar, sitting awkwardly in the world conjured by designer Tom Piper’s bare stage set stretching back to a huge gilt proscenium arch with plush red curtain lifted across the back wall.
Rubasingham allows Lester to bring his almost alarmingly calm authority and gravitas to Aldridge, but she also encourages him not to stint on the character’s arrogance. The latter, which leads to his downfall, is made increasingly plain in the epic showdown between him and Pierre. Their scene is more a succession of fierce, constantly restated positions than a developing argument, but the strength of the acting, particularly O’Hare’s knockout performance as a horribly provoked man, carries all.
The production marks the start of Rubasingham’s tenure as a.d. of the Tricycle. Chakrabarti’s first full-length play states rather than fully dramatizes some of its arguments — not least the ambitious image of Aldridge “whiting up” to play King Lear — but the story and the production have a shared clarity of intent. Rubasingham’s reinvention of the politics that have long been this theater’s hallmark is as welcome as it is smart.