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.

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[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.

Theatre round-up: Red Velvet, Ebbsmith, and Lear

Where I’ve been: on 12 March, I gave my talk at the Tricycle, which sold out! I was delighted, both to see so many friends there, and that people were attending other than my compassionate family & friends. Plus, as well as introducing E & my mother to Adrian Lester (who deteriorates in neither charm nor good looks, it must be said), the Tricycle’s AD, Indhu Rubasingham appeared from nowhere to introduce my talk in an incredibly kind and complimentary way. The audience looked surprised, because until then I think they’d been assuming that the child in the jumper faffing around the projector cable was some sort of admin assistant/work experience minion, rather than the speaker…

Christopher Ravenscroft and Rhiannon Sommers in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith.

Then on 14 March, I went in to Primavera Productions’ rehearsals for Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, to talk about Pinero, Venice, 1890s theatre, and 1890s morality. I am always willing to discuss AT LENGTH my great love of working with actors. They ask the best questions. This company asked ferociously intelligent questions, and there’s been some great follow-up chat by email. Ebbsmith is enjoying its first revival since 1895, which I initially assumed had to be wrong, but, no – it genuinely hasn’t been done since then! I am so looking forward to the production, not least because (as I discovered after taking the job), fin-de-siecle rakehell the Duke of St Olpherts is being played by Christopher Ravenscroft, who has been a personal hero of mine ever since (as a small child) I saw the film of Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night (1988). Admittedly, I was mainly torn between wanting to be Frances Barber as Viola (hair, eyeliner, waistcoat) or Anton Lesser as Feste (hair, eyeliner, fingerless gloves- I swear Captain Jack Sparrow was a ripoff), but after that, it was Ravenscroft’s Orsino, who languished about in the snow, indulging Orsino’s self-indulgence in what was (and is) one of the most beautiful British verse-speaking voices in history. He was infinitely better than Toby Stephens, and with Frances Barber’s sad-eyed, exquisitely-spoken Viola, they made up a kind of melancholy duet of 80s Chekhovian languor. Plus, Richard Briers was Malvolio, so you should definitely go and watch. So, yes. I got to work with Christopher Ravenscroft, and he’s absolutely lovely. Everyone was absolutely lovely. The actress playing Agnes Ebbsmith (of the title) is Rhiannon Sommers, who is probably wasted every minute of her life she’s not playing Anne Boleyn or Scarlett O’Hara (ignore her Spotlight. Those eyes are green), but who will doubtless be brilliant. The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith runs from 8 April to 3 May 2014 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and is directed by Abbey Wright.

I’d also recommend you catch Darker Purpose’s production of King Lear at the Cockpit Theatre, which runs until 29 March. David Ryall stars, in a great cast with strong performances throughout all the principal roles. I particularly enjoyed Nikki Leigh-Scott and Ian Hallard as blood-loving aristocrats, the Cornwalls; Charlie Ryall’s intelligent, New Woman Cordelia, and Dominic Kelly as Edgar. Until now, I have always been more bored by Edgar than is printable (even online) but he is excellent throughout. David Ryall’s Lear is as moving as you would expect, and the blinding scene, played entirely in the round with near-universal lighting, provoked both SPATTER and genuine yelps. Go and see it. If you buy a programme, you’ll have not merely a handy blood-shield, BUT ALSO 700 words by me on late-Victorian ennui, poisoned zeitgeists and morbid modern women. Re: Gloucester’s blinding, I discovered a very similar scene, the other day, in Robert Greene’s Selimus, a little-known 1594 play, which was performed by the Globe’s Read Not Dead actors, and introduced by Dr Jenny Sager, at a great if gory conference on Bodies and Body Parts. This was the first Oxford-Globe Forum, and I hope to attend many more.

So, that is where I’ve been. Also, term is over. Can you tell?

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.