When in 1833 Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, collapsed on stage while playing Othello at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royal, the theatre’s manager risked public outrage by hiring an African-American called Ira Aldridge – terrifically played here by Adrian Lester – to step into Kean’s shoes.
This first major stage play by the actor Lolita Chakrabarti (who is also Lester’s wife) marks a powerful debut.
It is also a strong start for Indhu Rubasingham, who, for her first production as the Tricycle’s artistic director, has chosen a play that revives a little-known but highly significant moment of theatre history.
According to Chakrabarti, Aldridge took on “the Moor” (a term that to my ear can sound as derisory as Shylock being referred to as “the Jew”) while London’s streets were full of protest against British imperial slavery.
But the play’s charge comes from a series of gripping backstage scenes during which Lester’s urbane Aldridge challenges the prejudices of his white fellow actors — not through speechifying about civil rights but via his sheer acting professionalism.
Equally fascinating is that the play casts Aldridge as a proponent of naturalistic performance — a style that clashes head-on with the melodramatic, posing conventions used by the other cast members.
Lester is never less than compelling. He makes Aldridge’s Othello a tour de force in both 19th- and 21st-century terms. The portrayal seethes with the rage that, one imagines, Aldridge must have felt as a black man trying to succeed on the London stage 200 years ago.
Would it be wrong to suggest that Lester may have felt a similar rage as a young black actor trying to succeed on the London stage now? After all, it is only relatively recently that the canon has fully opened up to black performers.
It is still possible to leave the theatre hearing audience members questioning whether black actors should play white historical roles.
If I have a niggle about Red Velvet it is that the play implies that the prejudice of two centuries ago or more was worse in London than in the Polish and east European cities Aldridge later toured, which is hard to believe.
And while I hesitate to suggest a territory that Chakrabarti has every right to ignore, I can’t help but wonder if there was a trick missed in not linking Aldridge’s ground-breaking performance with one delivered about 15 years earlier, and which also helped combat racial stereotypes.
It was given in 1814 by Kean himself, the man Aldridge replaced, and it gave London audiences their first dignified Shylock. A nod to that heritage might have further enriched an already fine play. (Tel: 020 7328 1000)