Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Ira Aldridge on Stage

RED VELVET, the play based on the career of Ira Aldridge, first staged at the Tricycle, is on again for a few weeks at the Garrick Theatre in London.  Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, the leading role is played by her husband Adrian Lester.   Book-ended by scenes set in Poland at the time of Aldridge’s death there in 1867, its central section dramatizes his success as Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, when he briefly took over from the famous Edmund Kean, before being frozen out of the two London prestige theatres (the only houses permitted to stage Shakespeare’s plays).  Thereafter Aldridge built his reputation touring the rest of Britain and extended it magnificently throughout Europe, notably in Prussia, Russia and Poland.

Red Velvet very effectively presents the huge challenge Aldridge’s talent posed both theatrically and socially – the former through what seemed at the time such amazing naturalism that audiences verily believed his Othello was strangling Desdemona, the latter through race prejudices that saw African heritage individuals only as slaves and servants (it was a moment of tension, 1833 being the start-date of emancipation in British colonies).  There is an audible gasp on stage and in the audience when Aldridge first touches white actress Ellen Tree.   One beautifully choreographed scene is the handkerchief dialogue between Desdemona and Othello, played in full neo-classical gestural style, blending stagey attitudes with intense emotion to convey the radical effect Aldridge had on his audiences.  

photo Tristram Kenton

Also included, briefly, is the perspective of a (fictional) serving maid from the Caribbean, whose role is realistically mostly silent.  After the performance she asks Aldridge, ‘why you kill your wife on the back of such careless talk?  Marryin’ into that worl’s a mistake… mo’ often than not people mostly have two face, don’t you think?’

As Othello, so Aldridge.  After triumph, downfall.    Despite success, Covent Garden’s reluctant acceptance of a black leading actor is swiftly terminated by the ugly reviews which mocked Aldridge’s performance, facial features and pronunciation, and the general outrage that ‘Covent Garden have brought out a genuine nigger to act Othello’ when ‘an African is ‘no more qualified to personate Othello’ than a fat man to act Falstaff on the basis of girth alone.  Audiences were enthusiastic, but Aldridge’s career on the main stages of London was thwarted.

A drama can only cover some parts of a true life.  Red Velvet is thankfully very true to history, as well as to present-day issues in showbiz.  But I was sorry that it presents Aldridge’s life overall as a tragedy, ending with his premature death in the role of deposed, old, insane King Lear.   The play might have concluded with one of the royal presentations in Germany, Austria, Imperial Russia, where audiences acclaimed what London denied itself for so long.

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