Two Shakespearean Actors, Separated By Three Centuries — Adrian Lester Plays Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet

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31 Mar 2014

Ira Aldridge
"They would have never gotten on the same page," Lester mused. "Jimmy spoke to the director, and the director said, 'You're just jealous because he's getting more laughs than you.' It's incredible the balance needed to play Othello. You can say, 'Oh, Iago is great,' and I love the play, but, actually, if Othello doesn't work — if Othello isn't pushing himself through pain and anguish and tears and regret, if he does not manage to grasp the second half of that play and take that audience on a journey of pain, set up those moments of tension that Iago can break — if he doesn't do that, the whole play doesn't work, let alone the characters. Othello must be rooted in that honesty of painful emotion. And then you have an Iago who has to understand that and work with it. Iago has the first half of the play, Othello has the second, and they have Act 3, Scene 3 in the middle, which is the fulcrum of the balance point there. And the transfer has to be smooth and realistic. Otherwise, you will lose the ball."

Lester, who is 45 and looks considerably younger, wasn't around in 1965 when Laurence Olivier committed his stage Othello to the screen. That performance is still the only time a Caucasian was ever Oscar-nominated for playing a black man. Lester opted not to comment on it. "I've only seen bits and pieces, not the whole film," he said. "You have to be careful in your research what you take and what you read because, even if you don't want it to, it becomes a part of what you try not to think about when you're doing the part, or it sulks in and becomes a part of what you do."

Getting the right accent for the American-born Aldridge and the Aldridge doing Othello in England was a major concern for Lester, who was born in Birmingham, West Midlands, to Jamaican immigrants. "There is something I do when I'm playing Shakespeare as Ira," he pointed out. "I switch to a British accent or a British-American accent, and then I switch back to full American, and I keep switching.

"By the time we see Ira, he has been performing Shakespeare in England for nine years, and he has been trying to get ahead in Britain as a Shakespearean actor. I firmly believe he would have done something to his accent or his accent would have changed somewhat in those nine years, so, when he bursts up on stage playing the American Ira Aldridge in a British version of Othello, I do those changes to my voice and my accent, and I take out certain sounds and keep the hard 'a' and the retroflex 'r' and the dark 'l,' keep those vowel sounds clean and make them English."

It wasn't until Lester was asked to read Aldridge's speeches and conversations at a dramatic club in London that he had ever of the 19th-century actor. His wife had never heard of Aldridge either and began the research that resulted in Red Velvet.

Lester had no idea he had married a playwright. They met as actors at RADA when she was 18 and he was 19. After a few preliminary words, they realized that "we'd lived across the road from each other for nine years in Birmingham, England, without knowing it." They are now married and have two daughters, 13 and 10.

It's only a question of time before Lester gets around to his Broadway debut, and, understandably, he's hoping it will be sooner rather than later. "We kinda knew that we would have to play for a little while to get the reviews to take Red Velvet to Broadway — if there was going to be a production on Broadway. It's not like you've got a huge movie star suddenly on stage. That'd get you to Broadway straightaway, without having any reviews. This play has to prove itself with the audience and with the critics before anyone thinks about spending some money to bring it in."

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