The day before I saw Red Velvet at The Garrick the audience evacuated the auditorium. The various authors of social media reported loud cracking sounds halfway though the first half. Some feared a repeat of The Curious Incident … incident of 2014. Others feared something altogether more sinister. The Garrick fronts onto the edge of Trafalgar Square: host to rallies of Paris Solidarity; Pro Refugee Movements; Against Refugee Movements and allsorts in between. There is a supportive chime outside its wall and inside we reflect a damaged faith. An inherent, though newfound fear of what ‘other’ people are capable of. So the day before I was there, the audience ended up on the cold, grey pavement. The truth behind the loud cracking was, of course, technical: a safe, if grating, problem with the sound. Another truth that the incident exposes is that the struggle that Red Velvet’s Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester) endured in the nineteenth century is a struggle that is still endured right now against perpetually altering minorities: the fear of ‘the other’.
Red Velvet is the tragic trajectory of one man and his will to succeed; his will to prove. But at its heart it holds the equally tragic question: who decides who’s worthy? Saying that, Red Velvet is as simple as it is slick.
Red Velvet takes a before and after format to tell Aldridge’s story, the main thrum of the action takes place over two days in 1833. Following the aftermath of beloved actor Edmund Kean collapsing on stage while playing Othello. When Aldridge steps in to take on the role and he takes it on with unaccustomed naturalism and, what’s more, he takes it on with a completely different skin colour. Cue gasps and awkward recognition from the rest of the cast. I know right? A black actor playing Othello: the Moor of Venice, who’d have thought it? The cast, bar one, are united in accepting him. Though their acceptance may well be a little rough around the edges, it is informed by the chants of anti-slavery protesters who have congregated outside in Trafalgar Square. The press are nowhere near as understanding and are aggressively racist in their critiques.
The middle is section is bookmarked by Ira more than thirty years later: now bitter and twisted, but at the top of his game. Lester’s performance really accentuates Ira’s tragedy. He can’t let go of the past and the reactions to his skin colour. He isn’t able to leave the past behind and irrespective of his undeniable talent still has to white himself up to play Lear. Ira’s pain of having to go through this process is embodied in Lester’s measured and still performance as he applies the body paint. The shock of his transformation is felt throughout the audience.
We have heard the glory of Garrick and even Kean holds his place in history. The tragedies of Othello and Lear have been seen and told thousands of times over, but what about the life of Ira Aldridge. Where did that go? Lester gives him the justice he deserves, bursting with anguish and sacrifice. Lolita Chakrabarti’s play is a story that is crying out to be told, and I am glad to have heard it.
Red Velvet is playing Garrick Theatre until 27 February. For more information and tickets, see www.branaghtheatre.com/red-velvet