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

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31 Mar 2014

Adrian Lester
Adrian Lester
British stage star Adrian Lester talks with Playbill.com about playing Ira Aldridge in the American premiere of Red Velvet.

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A slight smile crosses the uncreased face of Adrian Lester when he is told how commercially smart it was to bring Red Velvet to this country right after "12 Years a Slave" swept up most of 2013's film awards and tweaked America's awareness of the tragedies that befell talented, learned African-Americans in the 19th century.

By any other name, Red Velvet would be 40 Years an Actor, telling a comparable (if less violent) story of persevering against the brutal, bigoted forces that prevailed.

"Commercially smart" is hardly the way Lester sees it. Nor does his wife-playwright, Lolita Chakrabarti. Nor does their director, Indhu Rubasingham, the Tricycle Theatre's artistic director who pedaled the piece from a tiny stage in London to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it opens March 31 and runs through April 20.

As actor, writer and director, they have been laboring on the material for years to bring it to dramatic life — first as a screenplay, then as a play, and eventually back to a screenplay. Nobody stepped up to transfer Red Velvet to the West End after its Tricycle engagement — this, after London's Critics Circle had named Lester its Best Actor and Chakrabarti its Most Promising Playwright — so they set sail for St. Ann's, where there has already been interest expressed in taking the work to Broadway. It would mark the Main Stem bow of Lester, one of England's leading classical actors.

"Tying it to '12 Years a Slave' works in that sense — but only in that 'Oh, here's another character who has been overlooked in history,'" conceded Lester. "The two characters are actually very different, and what happens to them is very different."

But the racial bigotry that attacked, distorted and stymied their lives is the same. Red Velvet — the stuff of which theatrical curtains are made — is the surprising story of Ira Aldridge, the only African-American among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Aldridge's career ran counter to the color scheme of his times: While Caucasians were putting on blackface for minstrel shows, he was "whiting-up" to do Shakespeare. Born and educated in New York, he performed The Bard abroad, playing to crowned heads of Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Prussia and Russia.

Lester in Red Velvet
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Chakrabarti's play focuses on his big make-or-break moment, and it was a little of both. In April 1833, Edmund Kean collapsed on stage at London's Theater Royal, Covent Garden, performing Othello. He died a few weeks later — but not before tapping Aldridge to take over the part, much to the chagrin of his own son, Charles Kean, and the company's Desdemona, Ellen Tree, who chose to play her love scenes to the audience rather than to Aldridge. In the meantime, in the real world, the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act produced riots (which were eminently more preferable than the Civil War "the colonies" suffered 30 years later), and Aldridge's Othello became the obvious, easy target for venting hatred.

The critic for The Spectator averred that "an African is no more qualified to play Othello than a huge, fat man is to play Falstaff," while the one for The Times contended that, "owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to speak English." The upshot: Othello got off two performances before the theatre was closed down and its star headed for more hospitable environs on the continent.

Red Velvet is Lester's third stint in New York, but he has yet to get out of Brooklyn. BAM hosted his previous appearances — as Rosalind in the cross-dressing Cheek by Jowl's 1991 production of As You Like It and in the title role of Peter Brooks' Hamlet.

Mike Nichols, who has the most finely tuned antennae for talent extant, spotted Lester in drag as Rosalind and tested him for the ditzy housemaid of "The Birdcage." Neither actor nor director liked the result, but Nichols did find in Lester a quality he thought the cameras would like for "Primary Colors" — a high-minded idealism, which, of course, was perfect for the campaign worker disillusioned by dirty-pool politics.

This chance to movie-debut with Nichols forced Lester to bow out of Sam Mendes' Othello. "I went to the production," he remembered, "and couldn't quite get the lines out of my head because I'd prepared for it a bit and had expected to do it."

Last year at the National, he got another shot at The Moor and gave a memorable, testosterone-charged performance that was shown worldwide in movie theatres last September via National Theatre Live. "I was a better actor later than I was then because I was older." Nicholas Hytner, the National's outgoing artistic director, helped him find new wrinkles in the role. "I discovered things that I hadn't thought of before, thanks to Nick. The character's more or less the same. Jealousy to the point of being hopelessly in love with his wife is a strong feeder to his nature."

Yes, Rory Kinnear's Iago wound up with the Olivier nomination — in much the way Christopher Plummer's Iago Tony-trumped James Earl Jones' Othello — but Lester said the intricate interplay on stage was much more harmonious than what Jones described to him during their recent London revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

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."