TWO RECENT PLAYS – one was excellent, the other was quite good. Let me start with the excellent one: it’s called “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti at the delightful (it’s small and intimate; and Gandalf himself, Sir Ian, was in attendance) Tricycle Theatre. The lead actor, who was outstanding, was Adrian Lester (last seen in a dreadful TV series called “Hustle”; as well as bit parts in “Spiderman 3 and “Doomsday”).

The story is based on an incident in the (real) life of Ira Aldridge, a freed American slave who in the late 1820’s moves to Europe to pursue his passion for theatre. Aldridge built quite a reputation for himself in Europe; but the – heart of the – story is set in London, the year before emancipation (1834). It is here that at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden that he is drafted in by a fearless French director Pierre Laporte, to replace the lead actor, Edmund Kean in a staging of Othello. The idea of using a real black man to act the part of a black man is unheard of and leads to near chaos.

The play is nicely textured and addresses a number of issues through the lens of performance and the role of art in society. Pierre (Eugene O’Hare) says, “Theatre is a political act, a debate of our times. This is our responsibility…we have to confront life, out there, on our stage, in here. Make it live”

But the introduction of a black man to this white stage is too much of a break in tradition; art can speak of progress so long as it stays away from actually threatening the world with it.

Charles (Ryan Kiggell), the son of the ailing theatre owner Edmund Kean and the epitome of a sneering racist status quo replies that, “People come to the theatre to get away from reality. And…. What I mean to say is…it’s a sad fact…and I’m sorry to say it… but it’s true I’m afraid that…his…well…he will prevent them from escaping reality”

Aldridge wrestles with being true and investing his role with truth; art is about confronting truth. Charles wants nothing more than artifice; art is about escape.

And Charles is of course for the period, fully in tuned with his world. His class cannot confront the looming reality of blacks claiming a place at the colonial table. “This concept of equality and freedom, it’s a fad,” he says “Impossible to achieve because there’ll always be those of us who must lead and those who must follow.”

And the resentment/fear/horror of ‘the other’ that is couched in arguments about tradition, artistic purpose and finances (Bernard -Simon Chandler- another one of the actors aghast at working next to a –real- Moor says, “For goodness sake, boy, our whole economy relies on the labour force on those plantations. How do you think this theatre was built? It’s how things are”) is finally given full vent by the critics: “At Covent Garden,” one of the reviewers writes, “they have brought out a genuine nigger to act Othello. This gentleman is the colour of a new half penny, his hair is woolly, and his features, although African, are considerably humanized. But owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in a manner to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery.” The bile rises at the thought of this black man’s audacity to attempt equality and integration. “In the name of propriety and decency we protest against an interesting actress and a decent girl like Miss Ellen Tree being subjected to the indignity of being pawed about by Mr. Wallack’s black servant.”

For this is all they see. Not Othello, not the actor, not the man, just a black servant.

Chakrabarti’s uses these historical pro v anti slavery sentiments, this colonial world view, as the backdrop, the red velvet as it were, to enable us to examine how we see each other. The play that’s about to be performed with its on and off-stage drama is her ‘objective correlative’ that highlights the inability of people to see beyond the skin to the human… beyond the actor to the part.

It is summed up in a neat coda by another black person – a servant (who clearly knows her place) who tells Aldridge, “I had this mistress once grew attached to me, kept me close by and tol’ me all she problems, intimate problems, sir; but when five poun’ went missing she grabbed me by my ear like a dog and fling me out… I’m just sayin’ people see what them a look fo’.”

The play ends with a much older Aldridge in his dressing room about to perform. He’s putting on white make up. The black man rejected for playing a black man has won some sort of acceptance (in Russia) as a black man in white face playing not a white man, but Lear.

The other pay is Constellations by Nick Payne at the Royal Court. It features Sally Hawkins as Marianne (so good in “Happy Go Lucky”) and Rafe Spall as Roland (“Prometheus” and the upcoming “Life of Pi”). It revolves around these two who meet, maybe marry and one of them maybe dies of a brain tumor.

The ‘maybe’ is due to the fact that the play’s about the multiverse where every action that’s ever made plays out in different ways in different parallel universes. It’s a sort of better written version of “Run Lola Run”. Scenes are repeated over and over with sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle differences and consequences.

It’s fast paced and wonderfully well acted. I myself have a ‘thing’ about parallel universes. In one of them I have a novel that’s doing really well.

It was a nice evening out (short – a mere 75 minutes). But I’m not sure there was a whole lot of depth there… a sort of “Copenhagen” on trainer wheels.


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