Four years after it was first performed at the Tricycle Theatre Lolita Chakrabati's play about 19th century black actor Ira Aldridge gets its West End opening. Adrian Lester reprises his role as Ira, who finds himself standing in for the famous Edmund Kean to play Othello in Covent Garden.
The narrative arc is bookended by two scenes in which we see Ira as an old man; grumpy and irascible but still much in demand as a performer. Fame has given him a diva-ish attitude. A visit by a young Polish journalist hints at events surrounding his Othello performance that are obviously painful to recall. And it is those events from his early career that form the heart of the play.
It is a multi-layered story. Ira is no doubt a creative actor, dedicated and driven to succeed to the point where it blinds his judgement with almost tragic consequences. But this is also a story about culture and racism. At the time the play is set the campaign to end slavery is in full swing and while there are those in the Othello acting company who support abolition (others don't), liberal attitudes are tested when Ira turns up. The vicious strength of prejudice at the time is revealed in the reviews of the production. It isn't an easy part of the play to watch.
The role of theatre in society is also explored. When Ira turns up there is much discussion among the company about whether the audience is ready for such 'realism'. Once again the company fall into two camps those that think theatre should reflect true life and those that think it shouldn't be quite so 'provocative' when people just want to be entertained. It is here that director Indhu Rubasingham really brings out the humour of the piece, the acting style of the 19th century 'actors' is somewhat different to what we are used to and Ira further rattles some cages by suggesting a different approach.
Ira's story is a fascinating one and it is easy to think that attitudes towards black performers have moved on by some great distance and yet, with all the controversy surrounding the Oscar's white-dominated nominee list, it still has some resonance today.
Red Velvet is funny, shocking and moving and Adrian Lester gives a gripping performance. If you didn't catch it at the Tricycle then go and see it.
It's 2 hours and 15 minutes long including an interval and is getting five stars from me.