By Ruth Leon
28 Nov 2012
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Red Velvet, set in 1833, and based on a true story, tells its tale of racism and prejudice simply and well, with Ira's arrogance and supercilious belief in his own talent and the lack of it in others, not endearing him to his fellow actors who include Edmund Kean's son who, until Ira's arrival, intended to take over the role in his father's absence. Aldridge was blowing the wind of change into a London theatre that wasn't nearly ready for it. Today, when it would be unthinkable for a white actor to play Othello, it is worth remembering that there was a time when it was unthinkable for a black actor to play any leading role, especially that of a black man. If Red Velvet doesn't soon make it to the West End and thence to Broadway, I'll be amazed.
It is, in fact, amazing how much classic, or at least, period drama there is around London. Racine's Berenice, that somewhat moth-eaten icon of the French theatrical tradition is at the Donmar Warehouse in another attempt to tell about a man who no longer wants his longtime mistress, a personal tragedy compounded by the fact that she's a Queen of one country (Egypt) and he's the emperor of another (Rome). The truth is, Racine is a terrible bore. Composed, like all his plays, of long soliloquies, Berenice has torrents of words, saying very little except, "Don't leave me," and "I don't want to, but I must." The formalization of the classical form, highlighting the emotional extremes, is actually close to ridiculous despite a delicate performance from Ann-Marie Duff. I found myself thinking of that old Sophie Tucker vaudeville song, "If kisses won't hold the man you love," I mused, "then your tears won't bring him back." If that's what I was thinking in the midst of tragedy, it isn't nearly tragic enough.
There's a perfectly serviceable Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville starring Ken Stott and Anna Friel. If Lindsay Posner's production didn't make me rethink my understanding of this great play, at least it is clear, and if you've never seen Chekhov's masterpiece, this is a good place to start.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)