Review: Red Velvet

IMG_20140420_185622Overheard at the intermission of Red Velvet: “It’s like being at a daytime talk show!” Heck yeah. By this I mean the audience at Sunday evening’s performance of Red Velvet (a London hit at St. Ann’s Warehouse) was basically responding to the show the way a Jerry Springer audience would react to an episode. Ok, maybe a little more subdued than a Jerry Springer audience, but I certainly heard groans and “oooohs” when a character said something nasty, and spontaneous applause after a particularly memorable speech, and even a bit of hooting here and there.

It’s the way a 19th century audience would probably have responded to a melodrama, and it really added to the performance. That’s because this play is set in the world of the 19th century English theater. It’s the story of Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester), a black American actor who shocks the London theater world in by playing the title role of Othello in the 1830s, in an era where this kind of casting was unheard of. (Ordinarily, white men would play Othello in blackface.) Aldridge, who went on to become a respected Shakespearian actor all over Europe, was basically the Jackie Robinson of his day.

So the premise alone is incredibly promising: an interesting story and a fascinating glimpse into the theater scene of that time. The playwright, Lolita Chakrabarti (who is married to Mr. Lester), certainly researched Aldridge thoroughly and we get a detailed picture of his life. One real delight of this piece was seeing Shakespeare as it might have been performed in the 19th century, complete with dramatic posturing and exaggerated expressions. What fun! Their acting style looks pretty ridiculous now, but one of the reasons Mr. Lester and Charlotte Lucas (as the actress Ellen Tree, Aldridge’s Desdemona) were so great is that they still vividly expressed Shakespeare’s dramatic effect, even through all the overwrought gesticulations. Actually, the acting is great throughout Red Velvet: Mr. Lester in particular gives a phenomenal performance as Aldridge: equal parts talent, commitment, and rage (at the limitations imposed on him by the color of his skin). And Lester-as-Aldridge-as-Othello (and later, King Lear) was incredibly compelling. It had me wanting to watch the entire Othello as performed by Aldridge. (Well, Lester-as-Aldridge. You know what I mean.)

From these first three paragraphs, you might assume that I really liked the show. I didn’t, actually. It’s an interesting subject, with a great cast, and a very strong production, but none of that takes away from the fact that it’s not a very good play. I found it ham-fisted, beginning with its clunky framing device: Aldridge as an old actor in Poland is interviewed by a spunky young lady reporter, whose determination echoes some of his in his youth. The characters don’t feel real, with the exception of Aldridge. They’re more like stand-ins for the opinions of the time. (Though I did love Ms. Lucas as the very saucy Ellen Tree). The dialogue is more like an exploration of ideas about race, progressiveness, theater than genuine reactions from real people. And I felt unsatisfied, too, with the resolution: how did Aldridge become such a legend in Europe after his spectacular failure in London?

Ultimately, it’s just not as complex or textured as I’d have liked. Come to that, if a historical subject is handled with texture and complexity and a light touch, it’s rarely going to be the type of piece an audience can really “ooooh” the way they did Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse.