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.

[TALK]: Lady Dervorguilla Seminar Series / Black History & Ira Aldridge

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Here is the swanky and over-generous flier for my next talk. When your eyebrows have returned to a normal altitude, I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that “Lady Dervorguilla” could be equally a flesh-eating pot plant and the greatest, oldest peer the House of Lords has ever seen. Instead, she was Dervorguilla of Galloway, the original Balliol woman, seen inset looking judgmental in a deep red gown. Many thanks to Balliol MCR for inviting me a couple of months back, and if you’d like to come along, see the Facebook event for details. You’ll hear more about…

In 1833, Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, just as Britain was debating the abolition of slavery in its colonies. In 2012, Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning Red Velvet rediscovered Aldridge’s theatrical practice and extraordinary life. Dr. Sophie Duncan, historical advisor on the original production, talks about Aldridge’s life, rehabilitation, and the “progressive” Black history of the play, as well as offering advice on combining a career in academia and theatre.

NB: the flier neglects to mention the wine reception, surely the most important aspect of the evening.

It’s been quiet around here on Clamorous Voice, as I’ve waded more securely into the chaos that is Not Waving, Not Drowning, But Trying To Finish My Thesis. I have a submission date of 1st August, which I’m inscribing on as many electronic surfaces possible in a bid for accountability/intellectual masochism. I passed my confirmation viva, which seems to be to the end of the DPhil process, that which transfer is to the beginning. In a total dereliction of my former principles, I have become one of those people who thinks that Oxford’s transfer of status process is a good thing – when seen retrospectively. I’m not yet bonkers enough to think it’s a good thing at the time.

I’m also still going on the radio. For those who missed the story of how this happened: a BBC researcher found my blog, or possibly my twitter, passed it on to their superiors and then apparently disappeared forever, leaving a confused but charming producer try to work out why she found herself on the phone to me. This Friday afternoon will be my third jaunt to BBC Oxford, and I love it. Given that I consume radio like oxygen, and have yet to listen to more than five seconds of myself on tape, this is not surprising. I am totally available for Woman’s Hour. I would just like to make this very clear.

I’m also giving three four papers this term, something which (in sharp contrast to transfer-of-status) looked like a good idea in advance. SO, if you’re in the vicinity and would like to hear me speak OR think any of my subjects sound innately interesting, please do come along! The list is below:

  • Friday 3 May, 12.45 – 1.45 p.m. “Ira Aldridge and Black Identity on the Victorian Stage.” Race and Resistance across borders in the Long Twentieth Century; interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities). Radcliffe Humanities Building, Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, University of Oxford.
  • Friday 21 May, 5 p.m. “Women, Sex and Celebrity in the Victorian Theatre.” ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’ Research Network; Postgraduate / Early Career Researcher interdisciplinary network. Ryle Room, Radcliffe Humanities Building, University of Oxford.
  • Thursday 6 June, 11 a.m. “Manchester and the Forest of Arden: how one Victorian wedding became a global phenomenon.” The Global and the Local: North American Victorian Studies Association, British Association of Victorian Studies and Australasian Victorian Studies Association conference. San Servolo, Venice.
  • Monday 10 June, 5.15 p.m. “Shakespeare and the sleeping woman at the fin de siècle”. Victorian Literature Graduate Seminar. English Faculty, University of Oxford.

In other news, I am now twenty-six and one day. I am probably going to do something about the blog widget (to your right) which maintains the illusion of my youth and twenty-four-year-old promise. I am basically that blog widget’s portrait in the attic. I realise that, to anyone over twenty-six, twenty-six-year-olds who whine about their decrepit and withered proximity to calcification are appalling pubescents who deserved to be thwacked with a beehive. Believe me, that is how I feel about twenty-five-year-olds. Until I find how to change that widget, I crave your patience.

At some point I’ll be back, to express my rapturous love for Broadchurch and Endeavour, two programmes which took the distilled essence of my various enthusiasms and won me over completely despite containing ad breaks. Obviously, with Endeavour (doomed tragic policeman FIGHTS CRIME in Oxford) the bar for obtaining my love was always going to be set exceptionally low. I think that most programmes could be improved by being set in Oxford, and in Endeavour‘s case they threw in Roger Allam. Who walks around in a hat being splendid, and looking as if he confidently expects a forthcoming spinoff called Thursday (you could do worse, ITV, unless the Dowager Countess can somehow keep Downton going until the sixties).

I have not seen last night’s Endeavour, and I shan’t see Broadchurch until it hits ITVplayer tomorrow, so am anxiously avoiding spoilers. Re: Broadchurch, my money is on Elle’s Creepy Husband, although I’d be happier if we locked Nige up anyway. I’d be happier still if somebody tracked down that bloody postman and/or gave David Tennant a square meal. Anyway, yes, back sooner this time. Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

Advent Calendar Day 6: Harlequin!

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This poster, from the collections of the V&A Museum, was made in 1878. It advertises the 1878 Grand Pantomime at the Surrey Theatre, The House That Jack Built! or Harlequin Dame Trot.

First built in 1792, and demolished in 1934, the Surrey Theatre is probably my favourite illegitimate-and-now-not-there-any-more playhouse in London! It stood in Blackfriars Road, in the middle of (then) prostitute-ridden Lambeth. And yes, I have a favourite not-there-any-more-playhouse. My second favourite is the Coburg; I am the coolest person you know.

T. P. Cooke and Miss Scott as William and Susan, c. 1829 (NPG).
T. P. Cooke and Miss Scott as William and Susan, c. 1829 (NPG).

The Surrey was the first home of Douglas Jerrold‘s epically excellent melodramatic masterpiece, Black-Ey’d Susan (1829), which ran for over 300 nights and thoroughly embedded itself in nineteenth-century culture. Ira Aldridge performed there repeatedly in the 1840s.

The Surrey turns up a lot in the annals of the Basement Project (the sideline research I’ve been doing since August), and it lifts my heart every time.