Red Velvet at the Garrick

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 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.

Performing The Nineteenth-Century Stage: 12 March, Tricycle Theatre, London

On 12 March, I’ll be giving a pre-show talk for Red Velvet, the award-winning play by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and starring Adrian Lester, that’s currently on at the Tricycle Theatre. I was historical advisor on the first production and have been asked back to recreate my work in the rehearsal room (scary participation absolutely not required) and to give a seminar-cum-workshop on the process of bringing the nineteenth-century theatre to life! Adrian Lester’s already talked a bit about this process in an article for the Guardian (note the quoted source *cough*), and, seriously, do come along, because it will be awesome. There will be stuff about race, nineteenth-century acting technique, gesture, theatre history, the importance of such vital artistic theories as “big legs” and “the teapot” and how we might represent past acting styles in a way that engages a twenty-first century audience.

And Shakespeare. There’ll be lots of Shakespeare. I’ll also be suggesting the very GOOD things that 1830s acting has to offer us, in our emotion-terrified, minimalist, self-conscious age, now that “melodramatic” is such a perjorative term… there will be race, gender, history of gesture, history of slavery, a lot of original images, and the anecdote about the time Adrian Lester had to fix my old laptop with me. Unlike my original version of this talk, I will not be giving it while sitting on the lap of my audience, with everyone crammed onto a chaise longue behind me. I’ll also be using lots of exciting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images from theatre productions, some of which are extremely rare!

Tickets are £2.50, and the talk starts at 6.30 on 12 March. Seating is unreserved, and we’ll be in the James Baldwin studio, above the Tricycle’s auditorium. To book tickets, click here. Access information, including how to get to the Tricycle is here. Please do get in touch with any questions, and I really hope to see some of you there.