Red Velvet history lesson

I feel the need to frame my testimony, reviewing Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre, in the admission that Ira Aldridge, the first black man to portray Othello onstage in London, is almost completely unknown largely because of the way he was reviewed and received.

Lolita Chakrabarti @Lolitachakra

Yes theatre history is full of gaps, an elusive construct distilled from the subjective experience of performance that is only captured in diary entries or eye-witness reviews.

Please don’t hate me because I’m a reviewer.

In her program note Director Cherissa Richards asks
Why is Ira’s legacy largely forgotten?”

Perhaps the play tells us. We open with two people speaking European languages we can’t easily understand. The German-speaking stage-hand stealthily brings a young woman backstage, a Polish writer seeking to interview her father’s hero: the great actor Ira Aldridge.

Nobody seems able to understand anyone for the longest time, an apt beginning for a fictional play about inter-cultural communication. Written by an English woman of Hindu parents Red Velvet shows us change and a variety of reactions to it.

The play bears a content warning:
This production contains themes of racism, and the use of racial epithets — including racial slurs.

The play stirred up powerful feelings in me. At times I was furious.

Yet the story is de facto evidence of the possibility of change even if it’s like an oxymoron. Yes we see Ira portray Othello, and the outrage stirred up in response back in the 1830s. That we are in 2022 watching a brilliant performance and applauding this piece affirms that change is possible.

Red Velvet may be fiction but it’s like a theatre history seminar featuring examples of anachronistic stage devices and overdone histrionics that we don’t see anymore. In a season of excellence Red Velvet is an affirmation of the power of live theatre, the best thing I’ve seen yet.

Allan Louis brings a larger than life presence to the stage as Ira Aldridge, both as the sensitive man backstage and the tragic player creating the first black Othello on the London stage of 1833, sometimes showing us reminders of Ira’s American roots.

Allan Louis and Ellen Denny (photo: John Lauener)

Ellen Denny plays Ellen Tree, the actress who would eventually marry actor Charles Kean. Whatever the facts may be, in this fictional story Ellen has been playing Desdemona opposite the great Edmund Kean, who is taken ill in 1833, creating the opportunity for Ira to step into the role of Othello. We watch the remarkable chemistry of their first rehearsals together.

Jeff Lillico is very strong in the thankless role of Charles, son of the great thespian. Inevitably he’s the strident voice of negativity and convention, never admitting any jealousy while watching his fiancée playing opposite Ira.

Invisibly serving tea in the background, Starr Domingue is one of the key players as Connie. Throughout the play she has been the only person of colour present while members of the company debate Ira’s casting, as though she weren’t even there. Her silent witnessing reminds me of Peter Hinton’s idea to put a silent group of Indigenous performers onstage during Louis Riel. In her brief scene alone with Ira we are again watching two people struggling to communicate, as she castigates Ira for Othello’s violence towards Desdemona (conflating actor and personage), and tries to prevent him from reading his reviews.

Ellen Denny, Amelia Sargisson, Starr Domingue (photo: John Lauener)

Amelia Sargisson plays another sort of quiet observer. I’ve mentioned the framing scene with the young Polish reporter Halina Wozniak, whose enacted frustration at the beginning and end of the play mirrors Ira and perhaps the position of the playwright as well. Sargisson also plays Ira’s wife Margaret Aldridge.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about the role of Pierre Laporte, played by Kyle Blair. He seems to be an ally to Ira, taking a big risk to get him cast against opposition even if he gets caught up in the politics. The two men have been good friends, and have some lovely moments together.

The text of Chakrabarti’s play is so perfect in its construction that I can’t imagine removing a word. The two + hours fly by.

We encounter another fascinating sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne including powerful musical passages adding to the intensity of our experience.

Any student of theatre history must see this play, at least to be reminded of how difficult and elusive that history can be. Tempting as it may be to kill all the reviewers (after you shoot the lawyers and politicians), without us there would be little or no theatre history. Of course I might be a bit biased.

Red Velvet continues at the Guloien Theatre until December 18th.

See it!

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3 Responses to Red Velvet history lesson

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