Red Velvet, Tricycle Theatre, London


Nicolas Kent is a hard act to follow at the Tricycle but Indhu Rubasingham kicks off her tenure as the new artistic director in striking style now with this fascinating, if flawed, new play by Lolita Chakrabarti.

The piece begins and ends with scenes in a theatrical dressing room in Lodz in Poland where the pioneering real-life African-American actor, Ira Aldridge (1807-67), is preparing to play King Lear in the last year of his life during one of the many Continental tours that won him renown for the greatness of his Shakespearean performances. 

Adrian Lester has also broken the mould in roles that Aldridge did not get a stab at, such as Rosalind and Henry V, so he proves to be perfect casting here, superlatively conveying the grizzled thespian's daunting authority and the weight of his weary disillusion in the outer episodes and the  enthralling stage presence and idealistic passion of the twenty-six year old we see in the long central flashback to London, 1833. This dramatises the episode that probably condemned him to endless touring. 

When pre-eminent tragedian, Edmund Kean, collapses on stage of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, while playing Othello, Aldridge is drafted in as replacement.  From the open-mouthed amazement of the cast at their first encounter (in the very funny scene where his colour is deafeningly “the elephant in the room”) to the outrageous racism of the reviews, what should have been a breakthrough for him becomes a major setback. 

The terrible coincidence of the rioting in the streets over the abolition of slavery is an insufficiently dynamic political backdrop here and the script is sprinkled with irritating anachronisms (“personal agenda”, “physically challenged” et al) that can, at times, make the piece sound as if it is too easily judging the past by the standards of the present. 

But Lester's Aldridge is wonderfully stirring as he tries to infuse some real emotional life into the statuesque melodramatic posturing and “the teapot school of acting” that passes for performance amongst the Covent Garden cast and as stalks the stage with an electrifying dangerous and anguish in foot-lit excerpt where the Moor challenges Charlotte Lucas' s Desdemona.  

For his pains,  the actor is subjected to a pernicious double standard. When Kean plays Othello, it's an amazing transformation; when he plays the role, he is merely “revealing my own nature” and accused of “pawing” the heroine.  Roll on April 2013 when Lester himself will tackle the part for Nicholas Hytner at the National.  

To 24 Nov; 020 7328 1000