Perhaps the most powerful thing about Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play is how unsettlingly familiar its subject matter is. Red Velvet charts the rise and fall of Ira Aldridge, an American actor and the first black man to play Othello on the London stage, at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1833. Whether or not he was any good – though every indication is that he was breathtaking – is beside the point; he wasn’t given a chance. Met by a string of reviews decrying the unsuitability of a black man on the London stage, Aldridge’s Othello was forced to close after a handful of performances. He continued to perform in Europe on long and well-paid tours, receiving a state funeral in Poland in 1867; but he was never again to tread the London boards.
It’s a story that can’t conveniently be relegated to the history books. While such racism in the arts press is clearly a thing of the past, it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that black actors began once more to play Othello on major London stages – Adrian Lester, here playing Aldridge, will be only the fourth when he takes on the role in Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre next year – and not until the 1980s did blacking up become a thing of the past. While most elements of Aldridge’s story gladly seem remote today, even the casual follower of this weekend’s back pages will note that racism and the entertainment industry still have differences to resolve.
Chakrabarti’s play frames Aldridge’s time as London’s first black Othello between sketches of the older man in Lodz, Poland, in 1867; a grumpy, ill and bitter old man, whiting up backstage before a performance as Lear. Quoting directly from the reviews Aldridge received in London (“an African is no more qualified to personate Othello than a huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff”; “his features, although African, are considerably humanised; though owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in a manner to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery”), Chakrabarti’s approach is bristling and direct, picking uncomfortably at the scab of Aldridge’s experience. His suitability for the role is questioned from the off by many of the company members, who all the same don’t bat an eyelid at Connie, a black servant forever dishing out cups of tea backstage, while anti-slavery riots begin to brew on the London streets.
As Aldridge, Lester is extraordinary; he encapsulates each element of Aldridge’s portrait from 26 year old full of hope to embittered has-been via Othello himself with depth and dexterity; while Charlotte Lucas as actress Ellen Tree, playing Desdemona, and Eugene O’Hare as the Theatre Royal’s manager are the pick of a strong ensemble. It’s perhaps inevitable that Indhu Rubasingham’s inaugural production as the Tricycle’s new artistic director will be read as a sign of things to come; but if that were ever her intention then in Red Velvet she’s found the perfect message, for the Tricycle at the dawn of a new era, for theatre and the entertainment industries, and for society at large: look how far we’ve come, but look how much further we could still go.