When Olivier Award-winning Hustle star Adrian Lester talks about a fellow actor in hallowed tones, you sit up and take notice.
So weighty is Lester’s opinion, in fact, that even if he is waxing lyrical about said performer with a mouthful of hummus muffling his otherwise perfect pronunciation, you listen.
So it is as he talks about Ira Aldridge, the groundbreaking black US stage performer of the 19th century and subject of Red Velvet, the play, written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti, in which he is performing at the Tricycle theatre.
“As an actor, he must have been pretty amazing,” Lester tells me between mouthfuls of an upsettingly healthy salad as we chat in a secluded office in the heights of the Kilburn venue. “He must have known his craft inside out. He must have been tenacious and driven and supremely talented in order to achieve what he achieved at a time when people were trying to prove that men like him were a subspecies.”
If you’re wondering what exactly it was that this New York native did achieve, you’re in fine company. “Some of the Artistic Directors of some of the biggest institutions in this country had no clue who he is. They trained at the highest establishments of education, trained in theatre, but had no idea,” Lester explains. It makes me feel a little better about the gaping Ira Aldridge-shaped hole in my own theatrical knowledge to discover that such unnamed bastions of British culture knew little of the man who appeared in productions in the US, across Europe and in the UK at a time when many were ready to write him off as a second class citizen purely because of his skin colour.
This lack of recognition for the man who, in 1833, stepped into the shoes of the greatest stage performer of his generation, Edmund Kean, playing Othello on the London stage to a ‘mixed’ reception, helped ensure the fires of Lester and Chakrabarti’s determination continued to be stoked throughout the long journey to bring his story to the stage.
“I think what I’m being asked to do ranks with some of the best work I’ve ever done.”
Though Lester, his throat wrapped protectively in a scarf as he sits trying to eat his lunch politely between replies, talks of ‘we’ when it comes to commitment, he is quick to point out that though he is playing the lead, this is not his project. Chakrabarti may have had him in mind for the role and he may have seen the play grow from its beginnings as a film script, but he is purely an actor. The months of work, the research at the Theatre Museum where Chakrabarti could be found thumbing through books that could not be removed from the building, the hours of calls to the US, the back and forth with director Indhu Rubasingham; this was all Chakrabarti’s work.
Lester is sure it has paid off: “I think what I’m being asked to do ranks with some of the best work I’ve ever done because of the nature of the drama. Lolita had in mind what she felt Ira could do and for an actor enacting that she had in mind what I could do. Technically it’s very difficult, but we’ll go for it.”
So what’s so difficult about the role? For a start, 44-year-old Lester is playing Aldridge at both 26 and in his 60s. That’s on top of the pressure and test that comes with playing a character who originates in the real world. “I think a lot of actors will do all sorts of work, and it will be fun and entertaining,” says Lester in hushed tones, saving his full, resonant voice for the afternoon’s run-through, “but if you call upon them to do something that records fact for an audience or tells an audience something that they may not be aware of, that was true, then actors tend to dig really quite deep because they feel they’re actually doing something. That’s when actors really twist themselves in knots to get it right, because it matters more than just having a nice time.”
Then, of course, there is the small matter of recreating the very different performing techniques of the 1800s, a time when posture and position was more powerful than emotional truth. “We had to rediscover the real skills behind matching the thought to the breath to the movement to the diaphragm to the gesture,” says Lester. “It has to be matched, it has to be connected, because if it isn’t, it’s comedy bad acting. We have to do what people normally do as comedy bad acting, but make it good.”
So, not much to contend with then. Yet when the reviews were printed, the critics were universal in their praise for Lester, who will follow in Aldridge’s footsteps by playing Othello at the National Theatre next year.
“We have to do what people normally do as comedy bad acting, but make it good.”
For Lester to be where he is now, performers like Aldridge had to go first, paving the way for each successive generation of non-white performers to push further. “I’m waiting for the day when it isn’t something worth discussing at all,” Lester says of the role skin colour plays or doesn’t play in his career. Aldridge, he says, “just wants to act, he just wants to get on the stage and have the chance to explore a text, character and play. That freewheeling feeling of going downhill on your bike without any brakes.” Lester, I suspect, feels the same. He doesn’t try to hide his frustration at having to talk about race and the presumptions that are made about him by some audience members each time he steps onto a stage. It is only in having conversations with audiences, critics and journalists after a performance that he discovers the role his skin tone played in what they think he was trying to do: “Whatever I do on stage,” he explains, “I have to play through this perception of character that I’ve already been given, although I don’t know what it is and it’s different for every individual member of the audience. You’ve got nowhere you can simply be a 44-year-old man who’s an actor. You have to be a 44-year-old black male actor, and the black in that sentence means so many different things to so many different people.”
The frustration is there again when he talks about his previous London performance, playing Brick opposite James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The Tennessee Williams show made headlines for featuring an all-black cast. “It was almost as if the company had to earn the right to have non-white actors explore the play. We couldn’t just do it. As far as the actors were concerned, we were just doing it, but the advertising and the producers had to say ‘We’re doing a black Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, because it’s this and it’s that’. Just getting up and doing it wouldn’t have been enough.”
It does make you think that maybe we haven’t come quite as far as we think if, in 2012, we have to justify such decisions. But here Lester spreads a little optimism. “I have children who are not white and are growing up in this society and the world for them is so much better than it was for me. In the 20 years since I left drama school, this business has changed in a really good way. Every five years of change we step back a year, then we go forward three years. As we step forward or back, more non-white people are leaving our institutions of training coming into the profession and going I can’t be what I want to be. I’m sitting here going ‘You think it’s frustrating now? You should have been here 10 years ago.'”
Or, of course, nearly 200 years ago. In one of Red Velvet’s most breathtaking scenes, the reviews of Aldridge’s performance are read aloud. To the modern ear they are nothing but bigoted, offensive and racist. Despite their prejudice, the brief hint we get of Aldridge’s possible performance is riveting and certainly whets the appetite for Lester’s own Othello.
Where Aldridge led the way, Lester follows. His career has already delivered acclaimed stage performances as Hamlet, Henry V and Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl’s all-male As You Like It. In his own way, he is blazing a trail and knocking down walls, even if he achieves this by ‘freewheeling’. Hopefully someday soon the only presumption made about Lester as he steps on a stage will be that the audience will enjoy an incredible performance.
"There's nowhere you can be a 44 year old man who's an actor. You have to be a 44 year old black male actor, and the black in that sentence means so many things to so many people."