With the “all white on the night” Oscars looming, the return of Tricycle Theatre’s 2012 production of Red Velvet couldn’t be more timely – although its theme (racism) makes it sadly relevant at any moment through the ages.
The story – both extraordinary and true – concerns Ira Aldridge who shocked and scandalised polite Victorian society as a black man playing a black man (Othello).
The ground-breaking 26-year-old actor went on to storm theatres across Europe with his power and charisma but, according to this re-imagining by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, he never quite managed to reconcile himself to the vulgar response he received from London’s unenlightened polite society.
The play is bookended by the older man – cheerless, bitter and arrogant – drawn inevitably back to that trauma.
Why, the audience wonders, would we care to spend two hours in the company of this grump? What made him so?
And we are whisked back to witness the passionate upstart, unable to take the advice of theatre manager Pierre LaPorte (Emun Elliott) to take things slowly. To introduce the notion to genteel society that a black man can touch a white woman (Charlotte Lucas playing Ellen Tree as Desdemona) without raising accusations of savagery.
It is the clashes between idealist Aldridge and pragmatist LaPorte that carry the moral arguments and they are the most effective scenes; the astonishment of the cast, by contrast, is merely window-dressing.
In all this it is both necessary and unnecessary to say, Adrian Lester is superb. He was destined to play Ira, according to Kenneth Branagh, artistic director of the theatre company that has brought the work to the Garrick.
He conveys ugly hubris as the older Ira yet it is unbearable to see the younger version broken by reviews that reflect on the size of his lips and the wiriness of his hair while ignoring the skill of his performance. When he begs, literally begs, to be given another chance, the audience flinches. We are voyeurs, witnessing the crushing of an artistic sensibility.
There’s much fun to be had elsewhere as the playwright skewers the foibles, vanity and insecurities of actors while the arch direction of over-mannered Shakespeare – classic poses, ripe pronunciation – plays like a pantomime compared to the real tragedy unfolding backstage.