Monday, 15 February 2016

Theatre Review: Red Velvet

I'm at the midpoint of my passionate love affair with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season and that thought makes me deeply anxious.

With three plays seen and just three to see there has yet to be any announcement of a second season and COME ON GUYS THERE NEEDS TO BE ONE.

Sorry. As I said, anxious. My point stands though, however shouty it may be.

Anyway, one of the key themes of this first season is turning the lens (or the audience, I suppose) inward and looking at the theatre itself - see also Harlequinade and The Entertainer which bookend the season. Sitting plum in the middle is play number three, Red Velvet.

Image source. I will never tire of seeing this frontage.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Indhu Rubasingham - girls certainly run this world - Red Velvet tells part of the extraordinary story of Ira Aldridge one of the first black actors to make his name playing Shakespearean roles (he’s still the only black actor to have a memorial plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). The play picks up in 1833, when Aldridge was drafted into the company of the Covent Garden Theatre to cover the title role in Othello after current star Edmund Kean collapsed during a performance. The reaction of the company (some of) and the British press (all of) is sadly not difficult to predict.

A timely piece in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and associated ridiculousness, Red Velvet is a hugely powerful and exciting work. Previously seen at the Tricycle Theatre and off-Broadway, it is nonetheless richly deserving of its place in the KBTC season (despite the notable lack of any KB, though I like to imagine he’s backstage making the tea or something).

The writing is simple but excellent - angry, wry, unflowery - and some of the seemingly casual observations Chakrabarti draws the audience to make are very clever; the apparently ardent abolitionist unquestioningly chucking his coat in the general direction of a black servant is my particular favourite. The characters are vividly realised and three dimensional - Aldridge is not presented as a total saint just as other members of the company are not presented as total sinners. As the play within a play, parallels with Othello aren't hammered home as heavily as a lesser work may have done. The fact that the company’s racist in chief Charles (a suitably smug and impotent-rage-filled Mark Edel-Hunt) is due to be playing Iago opposite Aldridge is a pleasing little joke. The self consciously theatrical staging is clever too, with the entire cast onstage at more or less all times, those not needed sitting in tiny dressing rooms along the wings. The use of the real reviews that Aldridge’s performance got makes for a deeply uncomfortable and sickening ten minutes of excellent verbatim theatre.

The main appeal of this production, though, is Adrian Lester’s towering central performance as Aldridge - 100% worth the price of your ticket alone. His Aldridge is, initially, such a cool character (with such a convincing accent that you do occasionally have to remind yourself that this is a British actor you’re watching) and so instantly easy to sympathise with that his inevitable fall is all the more terrible. His confrontation with one time friend, ally and manager of the Covent Garden, Pierre (Emun Elliott - solid, authoritative and well accented) is heartbreaking and Lester manages the vacillation between rage, sadness and desperation in this, relatively short, scene expertly. Whilst the flashforward scenes that bookend the action are less effective - and arguably unnecessary - Lester is still fantastic as the older, broken Aldridge. And, mild spoiler alert, the ‘whiteing up’ in the play’s final scene is incredible effective and deeply disturbing, visually and ethically.

By far the best sequence of the whole play, though, is the play within a play bit where we get to see Lester’s Aldridge do his stuff. It is, simply, thrilling. I’ve seen Adrian Lester play Othello in real life (non-spoiler: he was excellent) but this sequence is something else. Even though the acting style looks old fashioned to a modern audience, there’s no question that it’s also phenomenally powerful, frightening and vocally and physically commanding. I would happily watch this Othello in its entirety.

Overall, then, this gets a big ol thumbs up from me. Everyone should see Adrian Lester’s performance, if nothing else. And there is a lot of ‘else’ you should see also. Get tickets now or it regret it later.

Red Velvet is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at the Garrick season and plays until February 27th.

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