Lolita Chakrabarti, 'Red Velvet', and what's wrong with theatre today

She won plaudits for her play 'Red Velvet'. But now, writes Lolita Chakrabarti, she is falling out of love with the theatre

I love the theatre. I love its immediacy and invention. The places you can travel sitting in one seat. I love the collective experience (as long as fellow audience members don't distract you with texting, talking or eating their chicken dinner throughout the play as happened one night downstairs at the Royal Court). I love clever, succinct language that makes me laugh or cry and says exactly what I would hope to say if I were caught in that same situation. I love the way I can travel and live through the problems, dilemmas and cultures of people I will never meet. And at the end of the night, as I walk away from the theatre, I somehow understand my own limitations a little better. I am so glad I found the theatre. What would I have been without it?

I wouldn't have trained to be an actress. I wouldn't have started writing. And I wouldn't have found out about Ira Aldridge.

Aldridge was a 19th-century, black American actor who played Othello at Covent Garden's Theatre Royal in 1833. He had an illustrious international career and when he died was given a state funeral in Poland, but since then his achievements and legacy have largely been forgotten. In Aldridge's day, theatre was the most popular form of entertainment. It was a social event attended by all levels of society. The difference was that in those days it was affordable. Money is always the key.

I was 13 when I first went to the theatre. I went to the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham. (The MAC was a doorway to so many plays for me. Affordable, diverse and inviting.) The Birmingham Youth Theatre was performing The Walking Class. It was a school trip and for my homework I had to write a review. I didn't know then that a 14-year- old Adrian Lester was among the cast. I remember thinking he was rather good and gave him a favourable review – thank goodness!

After that my trips came thick and fast. Theatre studies trips to London where we watched two West End shows in a day. I remember seeing Sir John Mills and Connie Booth in The Magistrate – amazing. All that red velvet and their names in lights. I was in awe. I remember being knocked for six by Antony Sher's Richard III at the RSC, (I stood at the back of the stalls for £3), Roger Rees as Hamlet and Berowne. I remember discovering theatre in my teens and devouring it like a Roman feast. I had a gluttony, a thirst for it, I wanted to understand this unwieldy beast. It could be anything, it could take you anywhere. I remember watching show after show by the Young Company at Birmingham Rep where Iain Glen and Alex Kingston were busy cutting their teeth. I love the theatre.

‘It’s about pushing boundaries’: Indhu Rubasingham on her rise to artistic director  

Now, 25 years later, having worked in the industry for all that time, I also loathe the theatre – the entitlement and exclusivity of it. The extortionate ticket prices that deny access to people like my teenage self. I used to see shows at Birmingham Rep for £1. (Hurray for the Travelex season at the National Theatre.) I hate the plays that masquerade as revelations and the actors that take themselves too seriously. I hate the irrelevant plays that are given startling reviews – "definitive", "the best show I have ever seen", "unparalleled". The hyperbole of the theatre makes me want to hide in shame. I hate the impenetrability of it and the pressure of feeling ignorant if you don't agree with those that "know". I cringe at the politically correct speeches from certain quarters about "diversity and inclusion", made to attract funding but based on half-truths where no real action lies.

A scene from Red Velvet A scene from Red Velvet Theatre has a rarefied reputation I think. It's not accessible like film, which is affordable, has a huge range of choice and is full of diverse voices telling diverse stories. Most people can name their favourite film star immediately but they could not name the great theatre actors of today as they could in Ira Aldridge's time. Theatre tries to be for everyone but in reality, it's not. We are in a Catch-22 situation – the people who can afford the theatre tend to be older and middle class with disposable incomes. In order to finance more productions and attract more money, plays are chosen to secure the attendance of that audience. Therefore, most theatre in Britain, including the work of international playwrights, is normally presented through a middle-class lens.

I remember seeing John Kani, a very accomplished South African actor, director and playwright, being interviewed. He talked of playing Macbeth in South Africa opposite a white actress as Lady Macbeth. He said it became a political act and there were ripples of controversy in the audience every night. I remember being struck by his words, excited by the idea that theatre could have that kind of relevance.

Ira Aldridge's presence in 19th-century British theatre must have been political. I wrote Red Velvet because I wanted to explore the complexity of that. I also wanted to explore personal fulfilment in the theatre (which is never guaranteed), disillusionment, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. That's what Red Velvet is about.

So where do I stand now? What is theatre to me? It's a gentleman's club, a pretentious self-inflated profession, a breeding ground for spoilt behaviour and questionable talent. It is also an army of unparalleled artists and technicians whose collaboration brings to life plays that ignite, surprise and wake up sleepy 15-year-olds in Birmingham. I truly love and loathe the theatre.

'Red Velvet', Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) to 15 March

 

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin