Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his day, collapsed while playing Othello at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in the spring of 1833 and died several weeks later. In an effort to keep the curtain up, management enlisted Ira Aldridge -- a free man of color, born in Manhattan in 1807, who had been acting successfully in the British provinces -- to step into Kean's shoes. The hiring of Aldridge, the adjustments of the Covent Garden acting company, his two performances in the play, and the resulting scandal are examined by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in Red Velvet, which St. Ann's Warehouse has happily imported from the Tricycle Theatre on the Kilburn High Road.
Kean has been described as a man who acted like lightning; Aldridge, here, is described as the thunder that follows. Thunder is an apt description of the power of Adrian Lester, who plays the leading role. Lester is a celebrated 40-something British actor on stage, film and television. American audiences familiar with London goings-on might remember him for two Sondheim roles, as Anthony in Declan Donnellan's stunning 1993 production of Sweeney Todd at the National Theatre, and as Robert -- apparently the first black actor to play the role in a major production --in Sam Mendes' 1995 production of Company at the Donmar Warehouse (for which Lester earned an Olivier Award). He also appeared as a dreadlocked Hamlet in Peter Brook's 2000 Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production, in Paris and on an international tour.
Lester is a Creative Associate of the Tricycle, and husband to playwright Chakrabarti. This is incidental information; Lester's performance in Red Velvet, under any circumstances, is a marvel of thunder and spellbinding power. (During this not quite overpowering local theatre winter, two top stage performances appeared not on Broadway but across the river, Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House at BAM and Lester's Red Velvet.) The actor's command of language, movement and presence is reminiscent of James Earl Jones forty years ago; here, finally, is someone who might do a credible job in Howard Sackler's 1968 Pulitzer-winner The Great White Hope (which deals with a not dissimilar, true-life story).
If our praise for Lester is unbounded, our unrestrained enthusiasm for the play at intermission flattened somewhat during the second act. The first -- which begins with a prologue set in Poland in 1867, as the aging Aldridge prepares for what is to be his final engagement -- combines Lester's high-octane acting and backstage comedy of better-than-average quality with unspoken racial tension as Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), the Desdemona of the affair, prepares to go forward with Aldridge; her fiancé Charles Kean (Oliver Ryan), son of Edmund, refuses to appear in his regular role of Iago. The curtain comes with a riveting rendition of the handkerchief scene from Act III of Othello.
Ms. Chakrabarti's second act extends past the moment of peak interest and falls into dramatics as Aldridge meets with a scathingly racist critical reception and is exiled from the London theatre scene. (He went on to become a major, award-laden star across the capitals of Europe and in Russia.) There is a scene between Aldridge and the Jamaican serving girl backstage at Covent Garden -- two extreme outsiders among the Brits -- which seemingly attempts to bring contemporary relevance to this 19th century tale but serves to deflate the play. (This might well have played better at the Tricycle.) The action then flashes forward to Aldridge's last stand in Poland, where in a standard-issue "old actor scene" he appears to have a fatal attack while preparing for a performance of -- what else? -- King Lear.
Lester is well supported by seven actors, with Ms. Lucas and Mr. Ryan standing out for their comedy, and the former impressively crossing over to drama for the Desdemona scenes. (The play's most electric moment comes as Lester and Lucas rehearse the scene in which Othello strangles Desdemona.) Eugene O'Hare, as director of the Covent Garden company, shares a riveting scene with Lester. Rachel Finnegan also does well as a Polish reporter, while Simon Chandler is amusing as the resident Brabantio who is forced to undertake Iago when Charles Kean refuses to perform.
As for Lester, his performance of portions of Othello within Red Velvet makes you want to see him in a full production of the play. Which is precisely how he followed the London engagement of Red Velvet, with Othello at the National Theatre -- a performance which won him the Evening Standard Award, and which was presented internationally in September as part of the National Theatre Live series.
Indhu Rubasingham -- the recently-appointed Artistic Director of Tricyle -- has mounted an effective production on a spare set (from designer Tom Piper) which is dominated by a half-opened red velvet curtain upstage, and framed by dressing room tables. Based on Red Velvet and Handbagged, which I saw in October at Tricycle, Rubasingham is an impressive new voice. (Her production of Moira Buffini's Handbagged -- a wildly wise and funny lark which pits Queen Elizabeth against Margaret Thatcher -- reopens on the West End next week, and will hopefully make its way to New York.)
Lester's must-see performance demands a trip to Brooklyn during the Red Velvet engagement at St. Ann's (through April 20). Those who have already enjoyed the play might want to get to the Drama Book Shop on Monday April 7, where there will be a discussion and script-signing with Mr. Lester and Ms. Chakrabarti.