Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet is back at Tricycle Theatre until 15th March, after which it will transfer to New York City. When I spoke to her, the writer – understandably – had no idea what to expect. Will audiences in America know her lead character Ira Aldridge? Will they be surprised/indifferent/annoyed/upset?
I’d venture that while the discourse around 12 Years A Slave continues (with Oscar winners announced on March 2nd), Americans will find their appetites for the hidden stories of their past more than a little whetted. Ira Aldridge, they’ll learn from Lolita’s play, is one of theatre’s finest historical unknowns. Not least for being one of the most famous actors of the 19th century, but also one of the most avant garde.
The story of American-born Ira’s arrival in London’s Covent Garden to play Othello draws in his experiences onstage and offstage, his critical reception and the public paradox. While audiences flocked to see Ira’s singular performance, others protested against the abolition of slavery. It was 1833 and Ira was about to get his big break.
His life is of course, a much bigger story than the play. “The facts of his life fall across an amazing array of situations and people,” says Lolita, “so I thought well, I don’t want to tell a biopic story. Often with stories of black people who’ve achieved something and been forgotten it’s ‘oh, we did him wrong’ and ‘aren’t we awful and wasn’t he great.’ I just thought, well that’s not true of anybody actually. The fundamental truth is that everybody is flawed.” Ira, though a pioneer, is no hero. He contends with his own arrogance and when we see him at 60 years old making his living touring Europe, the man clearly has regrets.
“I thought actors are a very interesting group of people and it’s a very singular profession” says Lolita of her subject. “I put the facts of what actually happened at the time together with my imagined ideas of what it might have felt like. I think if you get your big break anytime – like if I get my big break now – and it goes wrong, that affects your whole career. It’d be devastating. Breaks don’t come along very often. How would that have affected him? What if those incidents had happened to me now? It’s a merging of the facts of his life with what I know about the theatre now.”
One fact of Ira’s life that got as much attention as his race, was his more naturalistic style of performance. Playing Othello, as we see in Red Velvet, he insists on physical contact with Desdemona and addresses the actors in his scenes face to face. “The style of acting in that era was very, well we would think it was overacting if we saw it now,” says Lolita, “but it was large. If I set the scene of the theatres at that time: they were huge 2000-seater auditoriums lit by paraffin lights and the audience did not sit silently in the dark. They would chat and comment throughout the show, so it was on the actors to really hold their attention and they did this with very demonstrative acting to convey their feelings within a scene. They would often stand and face the audience relying totally on their own projection and it was very unusual for actors to be looking at each other on stage.”
But Ira did it anyway and Adrian Lester’s performance as Ira emphasises his insistence on innovation. “There are always new styles of acting coming in and I doubt he was the first person to do it, but he picked up on it,” she continues. “I got the feeling of it when, as a kid, I used to watch the old black and white Noel Coward films where people would talk in that terribly-terribly-clipped way of speaking” (she does a great impression) “you’d still catch what they were saying and underneath it would be this simmering – whatever the story was – passion, or longing or danger even though they were still talking in this terribly-terribly specific sort of way. Ira’s style was to just bring up the reality of it and the gestures just a bit more inclined with what the other actors are doing.”
For Lolita and everyone else in the industry, his experiences are part of the legacy of theatre. “It’s all handed down to us now,” she tells me, “all the actors and everything done, all the choices about what was acceptable and what was not is all handed down to us today.”
Red Velvet runs at Tricycle theatre from 27th January until 15th March.