IN WHICH A GOOD PLAY MOVES TOWARDS SOMETHING GREATER
Sometimes, memories need to be revisited. It was in autumn 2012 that I reviewed Lolita Chakrabarti’s play starring her husband Adrian Lester (my Times review, paywalled, is on http://tinyurl.com/nbfj6dl). I liked it, as everyone else did; was please to be one of those who voted both Chakrabarti and Lester their awards at the Critics’ Circle. I called it “sharp and entertaining”, and was delighted by the tribute to a largely forgotten theatre hero: Ira Aldridge, a black American actor who in the 1830’s, even before slavery was anned ,replaced the ailing Edmund Kean as Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. For two nights the “negro” strangled the milk-white Desdemona onstage before shocked, racist Victorian opinion stopped him.
I loved Lester’s performance – who wouldn’t? – and enjoyed the secondary theme – amusingly illustrated – of how acting was moving from Kean’s declamatory, stylized style towards more naturalistic and passionate performances. Thinking back, I remembered those things, and also moment when an embarrassed cast suddenly realize that the manager has bravely cast a replacement who is – gasp! – black. I appreciated, too, the slyly feminist device of book-ending of the play with a scene in Poland as a young woman reporter, herself underrated and patronized, inveigles herself in to interview the aged actor whose successes across Europe never quite wiped out the memory of humiliation in London. I remembered the final scene when we see with a jolt that even this victory has required him, nightly, to “white-up” grotesquely with panstick to play King Lear, and the apposite rage of his final “I’ll not weep!” and threat of “the terrors of the earth”.
But I sneaked back to see it again this week, wondering how it feels on the far side of Adrian Lester’s stunning and thoroughly modern Othello at the National Theatre. And I found that as sometimes happens the play has grown bigger: stronger, more remarkable, finding deeper feeling in the deep red velvet folds of bygone theatricalia. There is now a more shocking magic in Aldridge’s deep, dark dignity and bitter banked-down rage; more charm and mischief of his lighter moments and the edgy intelligence of his discussions with his co-star, as Desdemona moves towards his physical style and embraces a freer transatlantic school of acting. There’s real brilliance as the two meld stylized 1830s mannerisms with real emotion in the terrifying handkerchief scene which closes the first half. And there’s fascination – for us theatre anoraks – in comparing it with Lester’s interaction last year with his modern Desdemona, Olivia Vinall…
I had also quite forgotten the power and misery of Aldridge’s row with the manager , LaPorte, and the author’s generosity in letting LaPorte express the frustration of those who, faced with a moral choice, want to keep their job rather than be Spartacus. Indhu Rubasingham’s production is heading for New York. I hope it comes back. Meanwhile, friends, look out for returns and note that as I write there are three matinees not quite sold out yet…
http://www.tricycle.co.uk to 15 March