The surrealism takes your breath away. Two years ago London raved about Adrian Lester, a British actor of Jamaican descent, playing Othello at the National. Now we can rave about the same Adrian Lester playing an American actor who pretended to be African and played him at Covent Garden, in 1833. In Red Velvet, a play written by his wife.

On 25 March 1833, the titan actor-manager Edmund Kean – Coleridge said it was ‘like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’ – collapsed on stage at Covent Garden crying ‘Oh God, I am dying’ and expired of ‘dissipation’ meaning excesses of drink and sex. What a way to go, at 46.

His role as Othello was handed by impresario Pierre-François Laporte to Ira Aldridge, a touring actor from America whose performance was well-received by those who saw it but the press were less kind and as the final Slavery Abolition act was still being hotly debated in parliament, the theatre’s board demanded his dismissal considering it inappropriate for a black man to manhandle the famous English actress Ellen Tree.

Red Velvet requires a lot of exposition, but Lolita Chakrabarti’s script leavens it with neatly-imagined backstage scenes including the rehearsal where Aldridge charms Ellen Tree’s Desdemona out of her stagey artifice and into what may be the beginnings of naturalistic acting. There’s a lot of anachronistic banter among the cast members which could seem jarring but makes the history lesson more palatable, and the first act is hugely enjoyable right up to Lester’s impassioned pre-Victorian interpretation of the handkerchief scene. Twice as impressive if you also saw his post-modern version.

The second half is less triumphant, the politics and racism are not as confidently handled as the theatrical, some of the ancillary characters are just too broad and Aldridge is allowed to develop too quickly into an embittered outcast, doomed to touring Scandinavia and Poland.

But Lester’s complex, laminar, contradictory Ira and Charlotte Lucas’s delightfully drawn dignified-to-giddy Ellen whose fervent loyalty is withdrawn only at the last ditch are both a joy to watch.

At a time when the lack of diversity at the Oscars is marked with a hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, it’s deliriously exciting to see how far the West End has progressed with two plays which actively celebrate the transcendence of racial prejudice in theatrical performance, opening on adjacent nights: the striking Red Velvet here at the Garrick, and August Wilson’s storming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Lyttleton.

Hard to say which to recommend more, so see both.

 

 

This review originally written for londonist.com