Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.
Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.
I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in a Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.
Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.