Mihaela Bodlovic

Red Velvet

Reviewer's Rating

Red Velvet has had great success on both sides of the Atlantic since its first appearance at the Tricyle/Kiln back in 2012, and deservedly so. It is a very fine piece of writing that juggles several different registers simultaneously, and with great skill. It takes the shamefully forgotten yet compelling facts of the career of the nineteenth-century American black actor, Ira Aldridge, and creates a powerfully dramatic story from them without deviating from the historical record. This is rare. But the author achieves this fidelity and dramatic engagement while also projecting a series of debates that have a telling contemporary resonance. Whether the issue is racial prejudice (overt or discreet), or whether naturalistic passion or classical restraint should govern acting technique; or even more fundamentally, whether theatre must be inherently political in its enactment – all these deep and important and still divisive questions are aired in a delightfully open fashion allowing us to experience the arguments both in the cut-and-thrust of dramatic representation and in the light of personal reflection on what we witness.

However, it takes an acting and creative team of great acumen and talent to bring this all off, and it is hugely to the credit of everyone involved here at the Guildhall School that no concessions needed to be made to West End standards. In the last year of reviewing I have rarely experienced such a sense of engaged tension and intense audience concentration, followed by release at interval and final curtain. The cast has no weak links, there is no break in focus in a long evening, and director Wyn Jones and his team ensure that the verbal music of this play is given full room to breathe while at the same time giving us plenty of fluid movement and period detail to look at.

The play is book-ended by two scenes of Aldridge in later years, playing Shakespeare in Russia to great acclaim but weakened by failing health and embittered by memories of his racist rejection by the press in London when he was called upon to play the title role in Othello in 1833, a break-through moment caused by the indisposition of the established lead actor, Edmund Kean. It is this defining episode that constitutes the core of the play, partly played out in group rehearsals of the actors, partly in dialogues and confrontations between Aldridge and the other leading figures in the company, and also including one re-enactment of a key scene from Shakespeare’s play. The whole sequence is played out against the back-cloth of the political culmination of the campaign to abolish of slavery in the British Empire, taking place in the same year.

The play revolves inevitably around the figure of Aldridge himself, his glittering talents and charming but passionate personality. It requires an actor of great range to encompass all these elements and then create a cohesive arc of interpretation from youthful optimism through to elderly despair. In Daniel Adeosun this production has a remarkable leading man who seizes the huge reach of this part with a grasp of complete conviction and technical assurance. We believe in him at every point in the story and he gives us both raw power and shaded vulnerability with equal finesse. However, this is an ensemble production where everyone fires off everyone else, and equal tributes should be paid to all the players, of whom sadly I have only space to discuss three. Joe Pitts has the unenviable task of playing a deeply unappealing character, the son of Edmund Kean, who objects on every possible count and with gathering rage to the casting of Aldridge. But just like Iago in the play, Pitts commands our respect in the way he goes about it. The final scene before the interval in which all the key issues of the play are brought into focus achieves its compulsive force largely because Pitts is such a fine foil and opponent to Adeosun.

Likewise Jessica Thomas gives a remarkably layered performance as Ellen Tree, the resident leading lady and Desdemona. Wary of Aldridge initially, and always with an eye to the main chance, she is too good a player not to be won over and intrigued by his innovative skills and personal charm. Thomas traces her professional and personal attraction to Aldridge – and its rapid withdrawal – with flair and calculation. Martyn Hodge plays theatre manager Pierre Laporte, whose friendship with Aldridge is another casualty of the ill-fated two-night experiment at Covent Garden. The fraying of their connection under the pressure of events is very distressing to watch and offers an insightful glimpse of how corrosive prejudice can be even when yoked to genuine good intentions.

Other features that command respect in this immaculate production are the scrupulous attention to period detail in costumes and set; the impressive sustained command of convincing accents, whether French, American, or Jamaican, and the solid grasp of the conventions of the highly stylised acting practices of the 1830s, alongside modern naturalism. We should expect to see more from all these hugely able actors in the professional sphere, and soon.