If the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season Plays at the Garrick has a theme, then it’s theatre its self. First we had Terence Rattigan’s backstage comedy Harlequinade and the year-long run will end with The Entertainer, John Osborne’s melancholy tale of a washed-up music hall comedian.
Between those, Branagh gives a West End showcase to director Indhu Rubasingham’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning play about African American actor Ira Aldridge that was first staged at the Tricycle in 2012. And it’s a work that has been given a timely new relevance by the current controversy over diversity in the Oscar nominations.
Adrian Lester stars as Aldridge, who in 1833 was asked by Covent Garden theatre manager Pierre Laporte to take over the role of Othello when the superstar actor of the day Edmund Kean collapsed on stage.
It was a decision that would send shock waves not only through the company, but through society its self. Especially coming at a time when a debate was raging and people were rioting over the abolition of slavery.
Lester is spellbinding as the man who finds himself on the receiving end of racism, be it the bumbling ignorance of fellow actors or the downright, and by modern standards, almost unbelievable abuse meted out by theatre critics.
Amid it all Lester portrays Aldridge as a man with a dignity and gravitas, reserving his rage and fire for the most telling moments.
There are some lighter touches, however, and if we laugh uncomfortably at the ignorant racism of Aldridge’s fellow actors, we’re certainly allowed a belly laugh at the stiff 19th-century acting style. It seems that actors enjoy nothing better than taking the piss out of their own profession. And that’s very refreshing.
There’s a fine performance from Mark Edel-Hunt as Kean’s son, the most vitriolic in protesting about Aldridge’s appointment, and a nicely understated turn by Ayesha Antoine as the black maid Connie.
And while it could be said that a couple of the scenes go on a touch too long, this play is never less than compelling throughout with a powerhouse performance by Adrian Lester at its heart.
Reviewed by Tony Peters