Red Velvet at Garrick Theatre
This fiery and devastating revival of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet brands into the mind. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, it is the third play performed during Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick. It retells Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester)’s experience as the first black man to play Othello in London in 1833. Without being cloyingly moralistic, Red Velvet succeeds in exposing the virus of racism, holding a mirror up to our own society, which reflects back much of the same prejudice.
There are shocking moments of racism. But the play also makes us laugh at the characters’ absurdly hypocritical preconceptions. The memory of his failure to be appreciated continually replays in Aldridge’s mind. While he claims he prefers to “go forward”, the cyclical structure of the plot – which begins and ends with Aldridge about to take to the stage in Poland, 30 years later – reveals how he is continuously reliving the memory. By the end, he is more conscious of the ghosts of his past than at the beginning.
Our journey into the African-American actor’s memory is choreographed with the beauty of a Freudian dream. The stage is lit with a blue light and the cast gracefully revolve around a solitary Aldridge, who is lost in a reverie. The soundtrack adds to this atmosphere of dream-like surrealism, visualising him being transposed back in time.
During his experience in Covent Garden, there are abrupt shifts between the actor’s life and scenes from Othello. As Othello, Lester blazes, thundering his lines whilst simultaneously incorporating the gestures and asides, so characteristic of Victorian Shakespeare. He skillfully differentiates between Aldridge’s Othello and Aldridge, but there are points at which there is a thin line between the two personae. At the climax of the actor’s rage against racial prejudice, Pierre (Emun Elliott), the ostensibly French director, compares him to an enraged Othello. This implicit connection, flagged up between the two characters, reveals their similarities. Both suffer the injustice of racism and embody the flawed perfection, typical of Shakespearian tragic heroes.
For Aldridge, the velvet in the title represents a “crushed map of someone here before”, offering a “deep promise of something to come”. It is a metaphor for his life and the art of storytelling in theatre. The red velvet curtains on stage attract the eye, constantly reminding us that Aldridge once stood there. Lester’s heartbreaking performance responds to the promise of something to come, immortalising Aldridge and his life. A visceral, beautifully acted triumph of a play.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Red Velvet is on at Garrick Theatre from 23nd January until 27th February 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch Adrian Lester talking about Red Velvet here: