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Red Velvet

Published October 17, 2012

If anyone has forgotten how electric a stage performer Adrian Lester is, Red Velvet will give them a shock.

For the best part of a decade I indulged in watching the Olivier Award winner play a conman so slick seabirds would avoid him in Hustle. But seeing this talent up close on the Tricycle stage – bristling with anger, pulsating with confidence, alive with youth and succumbing to the frailties of age – is the type of reminder of his abilities that goes off like a siren, slaps you around the face and insists you sit up and take notice.

In the first production of new Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham’s reign at the Kilburn venue, on which the pressure of first impressions laid heavy, 44 year old Lester plays 19th century actor Ira Aldridge aged both 26 and in his 60s.

The young Aldridge, an African American actor who broke down boundaries and built a reputation as one of his era’s finest performers, is given his opportunity to perform on the hallowed London stage when the legendary Edmund Kean is taken ill. He is so confident in his abilities, so wrapped up in his craft, so committed to performance that he barely notices the reactions that come with asking a black man to step into the shoes of the time’s most revered actor. He exudes talent, controls the rehearsal room and on stage delivers a terrifyingly fierce, prowling Othello. Years later, ambushed by a rookie reporter in a theatre in Poland, weakened by age and illness, he still summons the booming presence to present a formidable opponent, yet everything is now tinged with sadness, regret and anger.

For modern multicultural audiences, the full force of what Aldridge faced isn’t entirely clear until the reviews, vitriolic verbatim accounts from the time that focus on lip shape and colour, are read. It would be farcical if it wasn’t so offensive.

That, of course, is why this is such an important tale to tell. This was a man honoured around Europe for his skill and talent at a time when the abolition of slavery was an ideal and emerging phenomenon. Yet such is the lightness of touch by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti that it never feels burdened by history and import. The characters zing like a crisp autumn morning, from Charlotte Lucas’ professionally smitten leading lady Ellen Tree to Ferdinand Kingsley’s excited puppy of a liberal Henry Forrester and Ryan Kiggell’s insecure, passed-over Charles Kean. Each feels entirely part of the story with much to contribute. I guess this comes from a writer who was first a performer, whose love of the theatre, the rehearsal room, the ensemble is clear to see, but who also scatters tiny moments of witty truth throughout the production.

Rubasingham ensures moments of gigglesome humour give way to silent tensions, throwing in the odd flourish of a spinning actor but always ensuring the tale moves on at pace.

 Early on in the piece, Charles Kean declares that “good theatre leaves residue”. Red Velvet, and Lester’s powerhouse performance in particular, will stay with me for some time.

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