‘Red Velvet’: A Moving Exploration of Race, Time and Art

This review comes a little late, as I actually saw ‘Red Velvet’ at the Garrick Theatre in London last month. Needless to say, in spite of my disorganisation and forgetfulness, this play has really stayed with me. One can clearly see why it was reinstated for a second run after its debut in 2012.

Telling the story of Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester), the first prominent black actor on the Shakespearean stage in Europe in the mid 19th century (in this play preparing for ‘Othello’), the performance dealt with the often heartbreaking subject matter in a poignant but also surprisingly humorous way. I did not expect there to be so many laughs, but in including moments where the audience doesn’t have to take itself too seriously, where it can stand back and embrace its humanity, I believe Lolita Chakrabarti’s script was very well balanced. It didn’t preach, it didn’t even really judge; the time was, sadly, what it was. Even Aldridge, who is said to have engaged in extra-marital affairs during his marriage to British spouse Margaret Gill, was flawed. Just like the fellow actors, and his first London audiences, that mocked and scoffed at him were.

red velvet
(Image by Ruby Washington, The New York Times)

The staging and costumes where simplistic yet enough to evoke an inviting Victorian atmosphere. Along both sides of the stage where dressing tables, mirrors and dim lights, really bringing the audience into the workings of the theatre, behind the scenes into its world of talent, egoism, and prejudice.

The double time setting also added a sense of depth and hindsight, a sense of reflection to the play. An older, sick Aldridge prepares for his role as ‘King Lear’ at the beginning, but is interrupted by a maid come aspiring journalist who wants to know about his struggles. This inclusion of an oppressed female character seemed, to me, a little far fetched and unnecessary, but I do see that it intended to highlight the scope of prejudice in terms of profession at the time. If it wasn’t a black man being kept off the stage, it was a woman whose hand was barred from writing.

Then his story flashes back to his preparation for ‘Othello’. To the professional and personal aspects of his battle to bring his talent to the London stage. (Aldridge later reflects that he preferred performing in Russia to in England, where he was honoured by the heads of state.) We witness how his relationships with co-stars develop, as the relationship with his wife begins to fall apart, and how fame and recognition lose him the very friend that believed in his ability in the first place. Artistic erfection comes at a cost for anyone, after all.

The audience is left with the beginning of ‘King Lear’, with an Aldridge who is, ironically, pasted in white makeup so that he can play this role. When he needed to play a black man he was ‘too aggressive’, ‘too primitive’, ‘too natural’. Now that a little time has passed, he is deemed fit for Lear, but has the wrong skin colour. He could never, therefore, be the actor he truly was, or reach his full potential. And that, for all that his struggle for fame cost him, was a very high price indeed.

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