Stage Door Review 2022
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Cherissa Richards
Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw, Toronto
November 25-December 18, 2022
Aldridge: “When I looked back I could see a trail of footprints and they were all mine. And then within seconds, they were gone.”
Crow’s Theatre has another stunning show on offer this season with Red Velvet, a play from 2012 by British actor and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti. The play tells the story of Ira Aldridge (1807-67), the first Black actor ever to play the role of Othello in Britain. The tale of that circumstance is fascinating in itself, but Aldridge is more important than that single “first” and Chakrabarti places Aldridge’s life in the context of other social, political and aesthetic movements of the day. The result is that the play is enlightening not just about Aldridge but raises questions that we are still grappling with today. If that were not enough reason to see it, Allen Louis gives an absolutely terrific performance as Aldridge in a production that is gorgeous and thoughtfully directed.
Ira Aldridge was an American actor who began his career with an all-Black professional theatre company in New York City. Fed up with the continual discrimination against Black actors in the US, he and a fellow emigrated to England in 1824. Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire, and had begun debating the abolition of slavery in general, making Britain seem a more welcoming place for Black actors than the US.
By 1825 Aldridge had already established himself as an actor in London with a seven-week run in five plays. He toured the provinces with success as well as Dublin and Edinburgh, Everywhere his Othello was especially admired, even by Britain’s leading actor Edmund Kean.
When it happened in 1833 that Edmund Kean collapsed during a performance of Othello while playing the title role at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, theatre manager Pierre Laporte hired Aldridge to fill out the rest of the run, thus making Aldridge the first Black actor ever to play the role of Othello on the London stage.
Chakrabarti, however, begins her play in 1867 in Poland in the city of Łódź (pronounced rather like “woodj”) where Aldridge died and is buried. The playwright invents the character of Halina Wozniak, a young woman who wishes to get an interview with Aldridge, now at the height of his fame in Europe, who had acted before more than 22 heads of state and received the highest honours in arts from Prussia, Russia and Switzerland. Aldridge’s valet had been told to exclude all visitors but Halina persists and eventually Aldridge begins to admire her tenacity.
Halina’s key question is why, after so much success in Europe, he has not returned to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. After a blackout the play becomes an extended flashback to the central incident in 1833 that explains Aldridge’s departure from Britain and his avoidance of the Theatre Royal. That reason, his taking over of the role of Othello from Edmund Kean, turns out to be the same reason why Aldridge is famous today.
Without revealing everything, I can say that Aldridge discovers that Britain turns out not to be as prepared to accept Black actors on stage as Aldridge’s previous experience there and Kean’s own admiration had led him and Laporte to expect.
Chakrabarti’s play is not merely about a single historical incident. It is also about the change in the style of acting that would occur throughout the 19th century. Before Aldridge arrived there had been three principle styles of Shakespearean acting. One, the classical, identified with John Kemble, was static and declamatory. The second, the romantic, identified with Edmund Kean, sought to inject more passion and movemnt into characters while still retaining stylized gestures. The thirds, the domestic, identified with William Macready, sought a more naturalistic approach but used aspects of both Kemble’s and Kean’s styles. Chakrabarti shows that Aldridge’s approach to acting was revolutionary in seeking greater naturalism beyond anything Macready had dreamt of in both delivery of speech and in movement.
Chakrabarti also expands the impact of the play by linking Aldridge’s experience to those of other oppressed characters. She imagines that theatre manager Pierre Laporte is homosexual, a secret only Aldridge knows. Aldridge comes to represent a visible minority who achieves success while Laporte represents an invisible minority who can only success by hiding his true nature.
At the end, when the action returns to 1867, Chakrabarti gives Halina a long speech in which she laments the fact that she will never rise in position at the newspaper because she is a woman. Through such links, Chakrabarti turns the play into a critique of of all the forms of difference and hierarchy through which one group claims superiority over another. When later on Chakrabarti shows Aldridge putting on whiteface to play King Lear, we see how the playwright links the play to the paradox of what some call “authentic casting” in that Aldridge’s audience at Covent Garden cannot accept a real Black actor as Othello but a Polish audience can accept a whitefaced Black actor as Lear, and likely accept him only in whiteface.
Director Cherissa Richards directs with a firm sense of pace and clear insight into the wide implications of the text. She obtains results that remind one of the best work of the best repertory theatre companies.
Allen Louis’s performance as Aldridge is simply magnificent. When someone applies the term “charismatic” to Aldridge, we know it also applies to Louis. Louis brings a boost of energy and vitality onto the stage whenever he enters. He clearly distinguishes the older imperious, irascible Aldridge of 1867 from the fresh, irrepressible Aldridge of 1833. What does not change, as Louis shows so well, is Aldridges’s confidence in his own abilities. Act 1 ends with Aldridge and Tree rehearsing the first meeting of Othello and Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play. The acting is so powerful that the person sitting next me said “I wish they’d do Othello” (meaning the entire play), which is exactly what I was thinking. Louis has been at the Shaw Festival for four seasons, but he has never been assigned such a rich, key role as this. Let’s hope that changes because Aldridge is the the first role I’ve seen Louis play where he has had a chance to demonstrate the full range of his boundless talent.
In a rare role that requires no singing or dancing, Kyle Blair plays the manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Pierre François Laporte. Laporte came to England from France in 1824 and performed in French-language plays but by 1826 was performing in English-language plays. Blair speaks his lines with a French accent but with such a clipped intonation it sounds more like German. This peculiarity aside, Blair is excellent at presenting Laporte as the voice of reason in a company in which many are outraged by his hiring of Aldridge. Chakrabarti invents a long friendship of Laporte and Aldridge with Aldridge being the only one who knows of Laporte’s sexual inclination. In their scenes together Louis and Blair exude a real sense of long-time camaraderie so that the argument between Aldridge and Laporte over Aldridge’s firing is filled with both anger and poignancy.
Ellen Denny gives a wonderfully sensitive performance as the actor Ellen Tree. Denny shows how Tree moves gradually from finding acting opposite Aldridge vaguely off-putting to displaying increasing enthusiasm for Aldridge’s new, more realistic style. Denny acts in the standard, stylized “classical” style preferred by Kean with such grace that we can see why people might have enjoyed it, but we also see how far removed it is from any style we would call “modern”. Denny also shows how Tree’s increasing inclination to Aldridge’s acting style simultaneously leads to an increasing inclination to the actor himself.
Amelia Sargisson is the only actor tasked with playing three characters – Halina Wozniak, the Polish reporter; Betty Lovell, the English actor and Margaret Aldridge, Ira Aldridge’s wife of 40 years. Sargisson carries off her most important role as Halina very well whether speaking in English or German. She shows how Halina’s tenacity at getting an interview from Aldridge could be admired rather than merely rejected as annoying. Sargisson makes Betty so superficial and jolly that I initially didn’t recognize her as the one who played the deadly serious Halina. Chakrabarti has unfortunately underwritten the role of Margaret. We would really like to know more about this woman who defied the colour barrier of her age to fall in love with Aldridge. Chakrabarti and Sargisson make her rather mousy and obedient, but we have to think she had a more complex nature than that.
Because of his unchangingly youthful appearance, Jeff Lillico is nearly always cast as a young innocent. As Charles Kean it is clear he positively relishes the chance to play the most vilely racist character in the play. From when Laporte introduces Aldridge as the company’s new Othello, replacing Charles’s father, Lillico shows Charles inwardly boiling with rage. Part of it is the family pride that anyone could replace his illustrious father. But most of it is the absolute repugnance he feels in the presence of a person whom he views as little more than an animal. Lillico is marvellous in portraying how Charles uses one circumlocution after another to voice his objections to Aldridge while trying nearly in vain to keep his outrage in check.
In smaller roles, Patrick McManus plays both Aldridge’s valet Terrence in 1867 and Covent Garden’s senior actor Bernard Warde in 1833, distinguishing the two by accent and liveliness. Nathan Howe plays Halina’s would-be boyfriend Casimir in 1867 Poland and the young actor Henry Forrester in 1833 England. He plays both as enthusiastic but what singles him out as Henry is emphasizing the optimism of the young man, in opposition to the old guard, for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, as a constant reminder of the place Black Britons had in British society, Starr Domingue has few lines but is in the background of every theatre scene ready as the servant Connie to pour out tea at the actors’ requests. Domingue puts passion into the one long speech Chakrabarti gives her when Connie warns Aldridge that even the White people who treat him well can turn upon him at a moment’s notice.
Aldridge accomplished far more that Chakrabarti’s play can even allude to, but we are deeply in her debt for raising up an important figure in theatre who never should have been forgotten and for illuminating a pivotal period both in theatre practise and in world history.
Charissa Richards and her creative team have created a production that can stand with the best of either the Stratford or Shaw Festivals. Indeed, the play easily fits into the mandate of both. At Stratford, the play would ideally be on the same playbill as Shakespeare’s Othello and played by the same actors. At the Shaw the play could be paired with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean (1953), about the great actor Aldridge replaced. At Crow’s Theatre Richards and her cast capture all the possible resonances of the play. Red Velvet is a play no lover of theatre or history should miss. As for Allan Louis’s performance as Aldridge – prepare to be wowed.
Photo: Patrick McManus as Bernard Warde, Nathan Howe as Henry Forrester, Amelia Sargisson as Betty Lovell, Starr Domingue as Connie, Allan Louis as Ira Aldridge, Ellen Denny as Ellen Tree and Jeff Lillico as Charles Kean, © 2022 John Lauener. Painting “Ira Aldridge as Othello” c.1830 by Henry Peronet Briggs. Ellen Denny as Ellen Tree and Allan Louis as Ira Aldridge; Allan Louis as Ira Aldridge and Kyle Blair as Pierre Laporte; Ellen Denny as Ellen Tree and and Jeff Lillico as Charles Kean, © 2022 John Lauener.
For tickets visit www.crowstheatre.com.