Lolita Chakrabarti, who recently won Most Promising Playwright at the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Awards, first came across the story of Ira Aldridge in 1998, when her husband, Adrian Lester – who would later play the part of Aldridge in Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet – did a reading about him. Aldridge was born in America in 1807 but made his career in Europe, where he had huge success as a Shakespearian actor and became Britain’s first black actor of note. Chakrabarti will be discussing Red Velvet at the Bloomsbury Institute later this month. She spoke to AYT about acting, writing and taking your time…
I go to the theatre a lot and I hate theatre that doesn’t include me. It might be because I’m not clever enough or I’ve not read the right books, but some theatre can feel quite exclusive and I didn’t want to write anything like that. I wanted to write something that meant you’d be able to come and get something out of it no matter what your experience.
When Adrian [Lester] did a reading about Ira Aldridge, he came home and told me about this actor, and both of us thought, “Wow, who’s that?”. We hadn’t heard of him. I was just at the initial stages of writing then; I hadn’t admitted to anyone publicly that I was doing it. I was starting secretly and quietly to have a go, and the story just hooked me. I thought this would be a fantastic film but I didn’t know where to start. So I did the research for about three years and then I put it away in the attic, and for four years I just left it. But I would tell people, “Gosh, there’s this extraordinary man…” and of course most people hadn’t heard of him. When I told Indhu Rubasingham [Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, where Red Velvet was produced] she said, “Write the play! The play will be easier [than a film]”. So I did, but it did take me seven years – so she lied!
I’m always really interested in older people and what they were. We often judge older people on what they are now and we know nothing of who they were in their heyday. So I was really interested in where Ira would have come to, and what would have made him that. You’ve got the older guy – with all his grandeur and success and money – and so I thought, well what’s the crux where it changed? As an actor the whole world is the theatre and performance and you are constantly singing for your supper: you have to prove yourself in every single job you do that you’re good enough for the next one. It’s a wonderful life but it’s a hard one too and there are lots of elements of that that haven’t changed. So I combined my own contemporary experience of acting and touring with what [I imagine] would have changed Ira’s life when he was a young man to make him what he is [when we see him in the play]. The story took time to come through, and that was frustrating, but actually in retrospect it took that long to be told properly I think.
I feel old enough to handle it all [winning Most Promising Playwright at the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Awards] and think, “Oh I got a prize, how lovely!” But I was always going to write. I mean, I’ve written for years and years, but I guess it has competed with my acting, because acting is how I make my living and I love it, but writing gives you a blank sheet of paper and you can tell the stories. So I want to do them both and I guess now what’s lovely is that there’s an expectation for me to produce writing whereas before, as a writer, people weren’t that interested. It’s hard to break through.
Lolita Chakrabarti will be discussing Red Velvet with Adrian Lester OBE on 28 January at the Bloomsbury Institute.
Photo: Tristram Kenton