Theater changes slowly. And then suddenly. You go on forever with your poetry and your choruses and your boy queens. Then Aeschylus adds a second actor or an Englishwoman steps onstage and drama is never the same.
The year 1833 might have seemed a similar watershed, marking the first time a nonwhite actor would undertake Othello at a major London theater. Ira Aldridge, an African-American, played the Moor for two performances. But though he received a few positive notices, a series of damning reviews, one styling him “truly monstrous,” ended the run. It would take many more decades for the West to accept actors of African descent as capable of classical tragedy. (Let’s not forget that Laurence Olivier blacked up for the Othello film as late as 1965.)
Though Aldridge has been largely forgotten, his reputation is enjoying a brief revival courtesy of Lolita Chakrabarti’s involving Red Velvet at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, it stars Chakrabarti’s husband, the extraordinary Adrian Lester, as Aldridge. Bookended by scenes of an elderly Aldridge preparing to play Lear, the script centers on Aldridge’s Covent Garden run and the racial tensions his casting evokes.
Set mostly backstage, the play shows how Aldridge discomfits his castmates, owing to his more realistic style of acting and his very person. When he grips Desdemona’s arm too roughly, is he merely an actor committing to the role or a man devolving to primitivism? His presence sets off nativist fears, particularly those of Charles Kean (Oliver Ryan), who complains, “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, half wits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics? Then any drunken fool on the street will play Falstaff!”
Chakrabarti plays fast and loose with history, perhaps too fast. Kean’s father, Edmund, was an admirer of Aldridge’s, praising his “wondrous versatility.” And Kean himself, here introduced as Aldridge’s antagonist, acted Iago to Aldridge’s Othello and starred with him in Oroonoko, too. The script is speckled with anachronistic phrasing and the psychology seems too modern. But why mourn inaccuracies when presented with this tender and complicated drama?
Lester is, of course, terrific in the part, his work enriched by the multifaceted Othello he performed recently for London’s National Theatre. His turn here is both muscular and easeful, an actor fully in command of himself and his powers even as he suggests that Aldridge isn’t altogether confident in either. Just before the end of the second act, he performs a snippet of Aldridge’s Othello, the footlights emphasizing the brightness of his eyes and teeth, the force of his movement. And while the performance is somewhat formal and orotund — a consequence of the era — the effect is thrilling. I’d like very much to see Lester’s Lear, which the play teases, though perhaps not in whiteface.
As it happens, there’s another Lear onstage, unaided by much makeup even now. The gifted Shakespearean Michael Pennington plays the role with valiant sensitivity and insight at Theatre for a New Audience. Unfortunately, few of his fellows approach his level (though Rachel Pickup’s Goneril and Bianca Amato’s Regan are wonderfully wicked). So he seems to be performing in a kind of vacuum, which the attractively bare stage emphasizes. With an uneven supporting cast, the aims of Arin Arbus’s production can’t crystallize. Pennington has the name and all additions of a king, but he needs a worthy retinue as well.