by Collin McConnell · April 8, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #71 Collin McConnell looks at Red Velvet now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO London, 1833: Revolution abroad, at home, and in the theater.
But step back in time, a moment:
The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves is passed in America (though does little to end the slave trade in the states),
the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade is passed in England (though did not abolish the slave trade in the English colonies - nor was it doing any wonders for racism or employment of those now "freed" at home),
and Ira Aldridge is born in New York.
Back to London, 1833:
The Abolition of Slavery Act (to abolish the slave trade in the English colonies) is on the verge of passing,
and Edmund Kean collapses during a performance of Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, only to be replaced by the black American actor Ira Aldridge.
Change is bubbling, stirring emotions in all directions. Hope for progress and racist fear fill every room.
Especially the theater:
“Erm, well our job is progressive isn't it, open minded, that's why people...”
“See what you've done...? Opened a door that needs to be bolted shut.”
This is, ultimately, the heart of Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet: the difficulty of progress. A theater is standing on the brink of the unknown - who will play the Moor, and what will happen abroad? - when the progressive answer walks through the door - the black, foreign actor - and disrupts the action - of the theater and the community. Some actors are excited, others are uncomfortable and disturbed; the audience is enthralled, yet the critics remain conservative.
Much of the play works, and works extraordinarily: the dialogue crackles with contemporary wit (and a bit of commentary) and reaches with such truth towards wondrous and intense heights - all while deeply rooted and living in its history. There is a true love of Ira Aldridge and his story alive within this play, for which much thanks must be given to Chakrabarti for her tenacity. But to talk about Ira is to talk about the actor bringing him to life - Adrian Lester. His vibrance is stirring - the ease with which he transforms from elderly and physically struggling (we meet him at the top of the play at age 60) to youthful, energetic, and ambitious is perhaps beyond words. Watching an actor so fully exhibit such a transformation - in voice and body (and, with credit to Chakrabarti, in speech and manner) - is a truly striking treat on which Lester delivers fully. His fragility as the older Aldridge makes one wonder how he could possibly become the youth we know we will see in only moments, and yet, as the Aldridge of twenty-six, one believes in his spirit - his gentleness and generosity - completely. Lester delivers such a rich portrayal of the whole man, by the end of the play I was perhaps disheartened in my understanding of the change from exuberant youth to bitter old man clinging to the claims he has earned.
With that, it becomes clear Red Velvet is holding up a mirror - or, really, many mirrors - questioning where one side ends and the other begins: white / black; past / present; theater / reality. These dichotomies are boldly front and center, and while, because of this, the text is wrought with anachronisms that one cannot help but notice, they are so well poised that one is unable to deny the truth of them, and so must accept them (or laugh at them, or be pained by them, or, maybe, fear them). Chakrabarti's ability to face the past with the turmoil of the present is perhaps the true genius of Red Velvet.
And yet... and yet...
What about the other characters? What about the individual struggles? What about the journey here?
...I'm not sure. And I'm not sure because the play, perhaps in its deep love of Ira himself, forgets about these other things. The sweetness of Rachael Finnegan as Betty Lovell, the ardent and bold commitment to old-world (even for this play) views of Simon Chandler as Bernard Warde, and the subtle and subtly sensuous curiosity of Charlotte Lucas as Ellen Tree are all well worth praise. And yet these characters are unable to take me anywhere in this world - it is not about them, and it unfortunately forgets about them - they have no journey. The only characters besides Aldridge who have a glimmer of a journey are Pierre, the theater manager, and Connie, the black "servant". Connie remains hidden behind "yes sirs" throughout the vast majority of the play, but gets one, brief and brilliant moment alone with Aldridge in which we get a true contemporary (1833 contemporary) view on Othello from the only other black (Jamaican) character in the room. Aldridge's confrontation with Pierre is certainly the most rousing and most truthful scene in the play (Eugene O'Hare plays him with such stunning and pained conviction that one might not be able to help but cheer or weep for him), unearthing rich sentiment behind both the human desire for the work in the arts and the painfully political side of them...
And yet that scene, like the rehearsal of Othello of Act One, falls flat. The characters can only go so far. The writing, for a moment, seems to understand this, taking them to a natural climax - but then, in spite of itself, it trudges on. The play seems to want to wring these moments of any possible spark of truth about politics, theater, racism, or anything else that might erupt between such fiery characters, refusing to let them leave the room (when the so obviously want to). And it leaves some characters with almost nowhere to turn. The confrontation between Aldridge and Pierre, while magnificently played with nuanced peaks and valleys by Lester and O'Hare under the deft hand of Indhu Rubasingham, is nonetheless nothing more than a shouting match.
I do not, as one engaging with this play critically, wish to sound conservative in denying this play its ruthless digging up of human fears and shortcomings. No matter its running in circles, it is still exhilarating. The play, however, is injected with Shakespeare, it dances intimately with Othello and its themes - of racism and jealousy. Yet, those themes, so dynamically realized in Shakespeare's drama, struggle here amid scenes that plateau far before they end, keeping this play from succeeding - even in the most "shocking" attempt in its final moments, Red Velvet fails to dig under the skin, to provoke, to unnerve.
"That's the beauty of Shakespeare - he unnerves you."