When Thisbe’s blood stained the mulberry red all those years ago, tragedy left its indelible mark on nature. Fiction and fact bleed so copiously into each other in Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s mythohistorical debut play, that it’s as if this blood has crimson-stained the velvet upholstery of theatre seats for good.
And colour is so important here. Not just the red seats, which have had to bear the heaving glutes of so many cowards and racists and artistocrats and conservatives over the centuries, but also that quirk of nature – something that should have been, that should be, insignificant – that tints my skin one way and your skin another.
Acclaimed actor Edmund Kean fell ill in 1833 while playing Othello and black actor Ira Aldridge took his place. He lasted for only two performances before those in their plushy stalls seats deemed it ‘just not on’ and set diversity back for another two centuries.
Chakrabarti wrote the play for her husband, Adrian Lester and – the play’s timely (#oscarssowhite) and hugely important message aside for a brief moment – there’s a lot about it that’s not very good.
While it may expose a number of faults with a now outmoded conception of theatre – exaggerated gestures, over-enunciation, bad accents – it still commits those faults. The question is the extent to which this is ironic. Adrian Lester not only has to act as an actor, he has to act as a great actor and I’m not sure if he’s a great enough actor to be able to do that.
Another big irony of Chakrabarti’s play is that it’s very old-fashioned. In its more tedious moments, the characters engage in long debates about the abolition of slavery. It sort of fleshes out some of the characters, but mostly it’s unnecessary. Unless you’re still in favour of slavery, in which case it might be quite enlightening.
Maybe none of that is the slightest bit important. Maybe what’s important is what the play is trying to do and when and where.
Branagh’s made an excellent choice including it within his season, as it provides another piece of a slowly emerging puzzle. It started with the overacted The Winter’s Tale with a sure-fire crowdpleaser of a classic actress in Judi Dench. Next was Harlequinade about a company performing Shakespeare in that overripe way that makes you think of brown bananas – almost a wink and nudge in the ribs by Branagh, ‘don’t take all that Shakespeare we just did too seriously, ok? Theatre’s moved on’.
Now another play about Shakespeare – this one with the added provocation of the lack of racial diversity on our stages. It’s a play that feels old fashioned in so many ways, sitting comfortably next to Rattigan and Shakespeare, in the midst of a cannily planned season. Branagh at the Garrick, in a theatre named after one of the old-time greats, complemented by simple and unflashy marketing, relying on a few solid theatre names. But my god that old fashioned veneer is just a ruse; Branagh’s trying to shake things up for an audience that he knows he can attract. Lure in the luvvies and the luddites, then dish up some spice.
And here is a play, set in the past, that depressingly reflects our present. A black man can’t play Othello, Chakrabarti’s characters say, because it doesn’t allow the audience to use their imagination – and theatre is all about artifice and illusion. Except now we’ve come full circle, where the argument against colourblind casting and genderblind casting is that it’s not realistic. Of course Othello’s the perfect play to use as bait – especially since Lester played him only a couple of years ago in the country’s National Theatre. It’s a good step in the right direction, but can we point to a truly, acceptably diverse theatre culture? NO. Of course we can’t.
What began on such steady Shakespearean ground in The Winter’s Tale is now slowly being dismantled. Both the physical theatre building and the content and character of theatre as an art form are being taken down, exposed. The wings are visible in Red Velvet, the actors break out into the stalls. The illusion is being shown up for what it really is.
Deception, then, is the name of Chakrabarti’s game: there’s only a very thin veneer of staid, traditional formality in this play. Behind the curtain, between the lines, we see how much we’ve failed to deliver on the promise that theatre culture so earnestly and often makes: equality, diversity, progression through art. Those velvet seats, stained red as artifice and actuality bleed unclotted, don’t look so decadent as they once did. The velvet is faded, there’s gum stuck to the bottom and Chakrabarti and Branagh are telling us not to ignore the problem any longer.
Red Velvet is on until 27th February 2016. Click here for tickets.