Live theater is a machine for intensifying emotion. The show I saw last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO poured me into my northbound drive home quivering with feeling.
Red Velvet stages scenes from the life of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play major Shakespearean roles in New York, London, and on the continent from the 1820s – 1860s. Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, which debuted in London eighteen months ago, is directed by Indhu Rubasingham and stars a brilliant, raging Adrian Lester as Aldridge. Theater, this play insists, runs on ambition and emotion. It forces rawness out of human bodies all the way to the back row. I’m still feeling it today.
The core scenario, told inside a pair of flashbacks that present an older Aldridge playing a solo tour in remote Poland, has the young fireball replacing the sick Edmund Kean. The legendary English actor had been playing Othello in blackface to packed houses in Covent Garden. When he can’t go on, the theater manager, a Frenchman with radical politics in his background (Eugene O’Hare), brings in Aldridge to play the Moor. The Kean family company, including the great man’s son, Charles (Oliver Ryan), and Charles’s finacee, Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), respond to the the radical idea of a dark-skinned actor with a range of different attitudes, from tentative support among the younger members to outright revolt from Charles Kean. Ellen Tree, cast as Desdemona and also Charles Kean’s fiancee, is willing to rehearse. They choose the post-storm reunion of Othello and Desdemona on Cyprus (2.1). In a wonderfully delicate theatrical back-and-forth, she eventually responds to Aldridge’s fireball charisma. They play a few nights to packed houses before virulent, racist reviews shut them down.
The political parable of elite hypocrisy — the older members of the Kean family don’t believe in slavery, mostly, but they do like plenty of sugar in their tea, even though they know about the conditions on sugar plantations — generates its heat as a tale of two acting styles. Ellen Tree as Desdemona and Charles Kean as Iago perform through classical mannerisms, striking poses and staring out at the audience rather than looking at the other actors. Aldrige’s Moor poses too, but he also reaches out his arms and touches them, insisting that they look at his face. Acting is feeling, he tells them. They’ve got to see you feeling it.
The confrontation between Charles Kean and Ira Aldrige drives the son temporarily out of his father’s company. As the unquestioned lead Aldridge lights a fire that can’t be controlled. The first act closes a wonderfully intense performance of the handkerchief scene (3.4) by Aldridge and Tree that’s a breakneck master’s class in acting technique. Watch her strike a pose! Watch his eyes seek out hers! They circle warily. She plays the verse’s rhythm like a perfectly tuned instrument. He barges through some of his lines. But now she distracted! He can’t bear to look when she mentions Cassio’s name! “There’s magic in the web of it,” says the Moor about the missing handkerchief. The magic, this play tells us, surges out of their bodies into the seated bodies in the dark house. The feeling communicates itself through words and eyes and movement. It’s hard to tell what controls it. Maybe it’s that magic square of missing cloth. “The handkerchief” thunders Aldridge as the curtain closes.
I spent the interval hoping that they’d bring Charles Kean back into the company so that I could watch Adrian Lester go toe-to-toe with Oliver Ryan, blazing charisma against controlled form, emotion flowing into reticence, modern against classical acting styles. It didn’t happen, and maybe it would not have worked; certainly the ambivalent relationship sketched between Aldridge and Ellen Tree had a delicacy that such a direct confrontation could not have matched.
The best element in the second half was the opening up of Connie, the Jamaican maid played by Natasha Gordon. She spent the first half of the show pouring tea, listening to sanctimony from the liberal English actors and staying as silent as Chekov’s gun. She went off in the second act when she was alone on stage with Aldridge. “Why did you kill your wife?” she accuses. I took the point to be that if acting works through emotion, emotions so powerful as to reach the high balconies and cheap seats, then Aldrige’s method is about killing his wife, repeatedly, every night. One of the scandals that the racist newspapers peddles, that Ellen Tree as Desdemona has bruises on her arm where Adridge’s Moor grabbed her, becomes in Connie’s hyper-literalism the logical end-point of theatrical intensity. Emotions crave to be made flesh.
The frame-story shows a grand but sick old Aldridge in Poland, proud of the honors he’s received from the Czar, alienated from the London stage from which he was excluded. (Chakrabarti finesses the details of his stage career, but for good dramatic purpose.) The solitary actor lacks co-stars, not to mention a revolutionary French production manager to get him onto the big stage. Being interviewed by a feisty young Polish reporter, played by Rachel Finnegan, who also plays the actor’s English wife earlier in the show, he slowly makes himself up in whiteface, wig, robe, and crown to play his next role, “the King.” Staring out at the audience as if we were all his evil daughters, he roared out his aging-lion final lines:
They are not men of their words!
They told me I was everything. (4.6)