Studying Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet at university in October of last year, I was opened up to the true-life story of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to grace the London stage as Shakespeare’s Othello in the 19th century. Aldridge’s appearance in Othello occurred during the same time as the abolition of slavery was being considered within British society. As can be expected, the reaction of his fellow cast members was less than favourable due to the close-minded attitudes of the day. Given that racial discrimination is such a sensitive subject, I was intrigued as to how The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company would handle such a task.
Red Velvet, performed at London’s Garrick Theatre, has an impressive cast with Olivier Award-winning actor Adrian Lester as the lead role of Ira Aldridge. Lester, who is also the husband of Lolita Chakrabarti, gave an astounding performance on 17th February 2016. The role of Ira Aldridge within the play is one of extreme physical and mental effort, having to successfully portray the two sides to Aldridge, one of the perfect gentleman, and the other being a person of a violent temper when pushed to his limits.
With actors performing occasionally within the aisles, this direction opened up the performance to the audience and allowed them to fully engage with the production and to feel involved in a part of the history of the theatre.
— Lolita Chakrabarti (@Lolitachakra) February 6, 2016
Powerful and enchanting
The play gives the audience an insight into the performance style of the 19th century and allows us to understand how Aldridge wanted to change the Edmund Keane Theatre Company’s approach to the art of acting. This powerful and enchanting portrayal of the life of Ira Aldridge not only highlights his artistic intelligence but also feels extremely relevant and important even today, especially considering the diversity issues surrounding the 2016 Oscar nominations.