Types of venues , Theatre
Until Sat Nov 24 2012
Time Out rating:
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Time Out says
Wed Oct 17 2012
After years of working together, the transition between former Tricycle boss Nicolas Kent and his long-time deputy Indhu Rubasingham was always going to be pretty orderly, and as a new era dawns after 28 years of Kent, north London's most righteous theatre sails on with its feathers unruffled. Lolita Chakrabarti's 'Red Velvet' is a meditation on race, theatre and Englishness that is, at its best, fiery and funny in equal measure.
It's also a vehicle for Chakrabarti's husband, Adrian Lester, who stars as the real-life Ira Aldridge, a black American actor who quit the US to make his name in the marginally less racist climes of early-nineteenth century England.
Most of the action takes place in 1833, when a hotheaded 26-year-old Aldridge is given his big break: stepping in for ailing acting legend Edmund Kean in the title role of a production of 'Othello' at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. But it all goes wrong thanks to those most loathsome of people: theatre critics, who simply will not accept him. Racism plays a big part, of course, but equally threatening are Aldridge's naturalistic leanings as an actor, which fly totally in the face of the über-stylised play-to-the-audience fashion of the day.
'Red Velvet' is more satirical than angry, full of good-natured theatre folk tying themselves into hysterical knots trying to logically explain why it makes no sense for a black man to play a black man. It shows a very English sort of conservatism that's still with us: a politely irrational determination to resist all change. Everyone is very polite, which is what makes 'Othello's failure so heartbreaking: Lester is good as the cocksure Aldridge at the start, but he is superb as the guilt-stricken one at the end, convinced he has let everyone down.
This is the meat of the play, and offers a confident, clever curtain-raiser for the new Trike regime. I'm less sure about the two bookending scenes set at the end of Aldridge's life; here, Chakrabarti is too ready to impose a tragic narrative on proceedings, suggesting that the failure of 'Othello' broke the actor and ended his English career – which is simply not true, and a glib conclusion to a nuanced work. Still, the final image, of the old actor donning whiteface to perform one last Lear, is appropriately troubling.