Adrian Lester in rehearsals for Red Velvet. Picture by tristram kenton
Published: 11 October, 2012
by HOWARD LOXTON
ON April 10, 1833, ailing star Edmund Kean was too ill to perform, so a 26-year-old actor called Ira Aldridge got his big break – playing Othello at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden.
People rushed to see him. He was a curiosity. He was black, the first Othello who didn’t have to put on black makeup. Some went to laugh.
While critics admitted he exceeded their low expectations, he still got harsh reviews. After just two performances he was dropped and Aldridge went back to touring suburban and provincial theatres.
He later became a star player on the continent, given medals by emperors and playing not just black roles but Macbeth, King Lear and Shylock.
Why did London success elude him?
In 1833, the abolition of slavery was a hot issue. Did the slavery lobby fear his success would undermine their arguments?
Was this a campaign against him?
There is a bust of Aldridge at Drury Lane Theatre, a blue plaque on his house near the Crystal Palace and a portrait at the Old Vic, where, as a teenager newly arrived from America, he made an early appearance. But for a century he was largely forgotten.
Only recently he has become more widely known. Indeed, actor Adrian Lester is about to play him in Red Velvet, written by his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti.
The play opens Indhu Rubasingham’s first season as artistic director at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre.
Even Lester hadn’t heard of the “African Roscius”, as Aldridge’s billing often described him, until about 1997.
“The play embraces all Aldridge’s career,” Lester told me during a break in rehearsals. “It opens in Warsaw in 1867, goes back to 1822 London and then returns to Warsaw. It is an incredible life but you can’t put everything we know about him on stage; it would just become a history lesson. There is nothing in the play you could say didn’t happen. Lolita researched this so well and has been so clever, using all of the facts about his life – where he was, where he performed, who he was married to, his children – but we have no idea of the conversations that took place. That’s what the playwright invents, and she has written a drama structured in the grey areas of his life not in the written record.”
Lester dismissed the idea that performing in a play by someone you are so close to could create problems. “I was able to feed in my thoughts and concerns a long time ago,” he explained. “I was always aware of its development. We bounced ideas backwards and forwards, which means you don’t have to polish an idea when you have it. You can throw out a crazy idea and when it is reflected back to you by your partner it crystallizes into something better, you do it together.”
Although the part was written with Lester in mind, it was not certain he would play it. “We are in a profession where you don’t know what you are going to be doing day to day. I was in Hustle, I had no idea what I would be doing. Lolita worked on the play with Indhu before she knew she was coming to the Tricycle – it was something she was going to do somewhere. Then the Tricycle artistic directorship came up. I remember Indhu saying ‘I am not sure I should go for that’ and we said ‘You’re perfect for it’. When she thought she could do it was still up to her, and anyway I might not be available– but it all came together.
“With an historical character you can’t invent as much as you’d like,” added Lester. “You have to stick quite closely to the material, but there is very little from which to build how to play him. There are a few pictures and detailed descriptions of his performances in Russia, but that is all so subjective.”
In Hustle, his television series, Lester creates a wide range of characterisations. Red Velvet again demonstrates his versatility. “I get not only to play some of his roles but Aldridge at different ages – doing Shakespeare at 26 with an American accent and at 65 with an English one.
“It is difficult to reconstruct his style of performance today. There are images of poses, but they are only moments. Imitating 19th-century acting would jar with modern performance sensibilities. We have to recreate Aldridge for a modern audience: one foot is very firmly in the past and one in the present. When he played Macbeth, or Lear, or Shylock, Aldridge used to ‘white up’ – use makeup to look European.
“It is something we are still thinking about at this stage of rehearsal.”
Of course, we also get to see Adrian Lester, as Ira Aldridge as Othello. Next year he is to play that role at the National Theatre. Will this be a foretaste or something very different?
• Red Velvet opens at the Tricycle Theatre on October 11, 020 7328 1000, www.tricycle.co.uk