Afrocentric Theatre, Music, Culture and Business

Red Velvet (Play Review) Red Velvet (Play Review)
Red Velvet (Play Review)

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning play Red Velvet is given a much-needed revival by the prestigious Guildhall School. It’s an appropriate reminder at a time when Black representation in theatre and film is a much-discussed subject.


The play tells the story of Ira Aldridge, a long-forgotten but nonetheless trailblazing African American actor who arrived on the shores of England in 1824, when despite the Slave Trade Act of 1807, slavery was still rife across the British Empire and Blacks in England were servants or other lowly professions.


Red Velvet is both a tale about the extraordinary life of this brave actor as it is an exploration of racial attitudes at the beginning of the Victorian times.


As the sumptuous red velvet curtains raise we witness a heated discussion amongst the cast about who will play Othello as its lead actor the great Edmund Kean has been taken ill. The cast is divided over the suggestion that a black actor should play the part of  Othello who ironically is himself, Black.


Some are horrified that the public would never accept a person of colour playing such a significant role and will turn away from the play in droves. Whilst others see it as an opportunity to push the boundaries of artistic creativity as well as further the cause of racial equality.


The arrival of Ira is both rewarding and unnerving. He is brash and confident from his acting successes in the provinces, but seemingly unaware that his larger than life persona does not sit well with fellow actors or the press.


He changes the spirit of the play and despite warnings to be cautious plays the role with such intensity and zeal that he not only angers the other cast members he also inadvertently injures Desdemona in the process.


Unsurprisingly, his performance is severely panned by the critics, forcing him out of the role and consigning him once again to provinces and then onto the European stage where he finds a modicum of success before his death.


Daniel Adeosun is wonderful as the audacious but ultimately foolhardy Ira. You truly sense a man overflowing with his own supreme self-confidence but surprisingly naïve to the racism and cultural attitude that surrounds him.


Praiseworthy is Charles Kean, whose performance as the outraged and racially intolerant son of Edmund. His facial and body contortions and unfettered anger at the thought of a black actor usurping his coveted role was a joy to watch.


Other notable highlights include Louis Landu as the forward-looking Henry Forester ready to embrace a more progressive inclusive attitude to race and equality especially in the arts and Martyn Hodge as Pierre Laporte, the trailblazing impresario ready to demand the arts be taken a brave new path that truly reflected the changing world.


Skilfully directed with great thought by Wyn Jones on a lavish set by Susannah Henry, Red Velvet is an insight into racial sentiments at this period of history as well as timely barometer of how much or how little has changed when compared to modern times. As the production notes state “we are offered a front-row seat into what ingrained racism looks like and how progression works in real life and real-time.”


As entertainment, especially theatre attempt to be truly representative of society and Black actors struggle to break-free from stereotypical casting with mixed success, the play is a fitting indication of how little or how much has changed depending on your perspective.


Red Velvet, 14-19 Oct, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Milton Court Studio Theatre £5-£10 https://www.gsmd.ac.uk/drama/view_all_events/?tx_julleevents_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=6304

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