The story of a black actor on the Victorian stage raises questions about race and racism in today's theatre, argues Peter J.Smith
Credit: Tristram KentonThe skin I live in: productions such as Red Velvet struggle to explore issues of race and identity
By Lolita Chakrabarti
Starring Adrian Lester
Tricycle Theatre, London
Until 24 November
A new play prompts intriguing questions about the racial politics of theatrical representation on the Victorian stage and today.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet dramatises the career of the African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-67), whose London performances as Othello took place in 1833, the year of the abolition of slavery. Theatre manager Pierre Laporte (played by Eugene O’Hare) drafts in the unknown Aldridge (Adrian Lester) to take the title role occupied, until his recent collapse, by the legendary Edmund Kean.
Kean’s son Charles (Ryan Kiggell), who has been playing Iago opposite his father, is horrified to discover that the role of the Moor is to be taken over by this outsider, his professional rivalry thinly veiling a wounded sense of racial superiority: “Everyone will be expecting my father. You cannot possibly think of replacing him with…him.”
Chakrabarti’s play asks searching questions about the nature of theatrical representation. Looking back on his earlier career, the now aged Aldridge ponders the theatre’s potential to cradle and excite audience expectation: “Something about velvet - a deep promise of what’s to come, the sweat of others embedded in the pile.”
Theatre is about traditions - family (handed down from Kean father to son), style and representation. When the racially and theatrically “other” arrives, such traditions founder. Rehearsing, Aldridge’s Othello ventures, “I like chance. Possibility. I like to listen and respond.”
His Desdemona replies, “So you’re an advocate of the ‘domestic’ style of acting?” The prevailing style is “the ‘teapot’ school”, which we see parodied by the players declaiming directly to the audience, one hand raised in a vague gesture, the other on their hip.
What’s at stake here is the usurpation of conventionality by naturalism as the English tradition of the actor-manager performing the role gives way to an early (or anachronistic) version of American method acting, where the actor feels the role. This distinction takes on a crucial dimension in racial terms. As Charles says, “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, halfwits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics?” As another of the company seeks to defend a black Othello, Charles blurts out: “You won’t say that when he’s taking your jobs.” What began as a discussion about theatrical representation boils down to a fear of economic displacement.
Perhaps it is the result of contemporary austerity but racial politics and theatre are very much in the news of late. On Radio 4’s Front Row on 19 October, Gregory Doran was forced to defend his decision to cast white instead of Chinese actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao, which opened on Tuesday. On the same day, Matt Trueman and Kate Connolly described in The Guardian how the playwright Bruce Norris withdrew performance rights for the Berlin production of Clybourne Park after learning that a black character was to be personated by a white actor in blackface. They noted that “Last year, the Deutsches Theater’s production of Othello cast a white woman in a gorilla suit in the lead role to explore the play’s concern with race”.
There’s a fundamental distinction between the 2012 Globe to Globe productions, on the one hand, and the most recent batch of RSC productions, Julius Caesar (currently touring the world), Much Ado About Nothing (which has just completed its run at London’s Noel Coward Theatre) and Troilus and Cressida on the other. While the Globe staged, for instance, a Hindi Twelfth Night and a Mandarin Richard III with native Hindi and Mandarin speakers, the RSC productions used anglophone actors to imitate the languages of other cultures.
Now it may well be that the colonial inheritance of the unspecified African country used as a setting in Julius Caesar or the Delhi of Much Ado is spoken English, but the impersonation of different cultures is not merely a matter of language. Much Ado’s portrayal of the Watch relied on a characterisation of contemporary India as a bumbling and incompetent place run by caricatures from the 1970s sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Julius Caesar, with its witch doctor/soothsayer, utilised a clumsy shorthand, cultural and (in this particular case) racial.
Yet there is a paradox here. Part of the pleasure of theatre is watching actors pretend to be someone else - Propeller’s all-male casts pretend to be women, Kathryn Hunter pretends to be King Lear (Leicester Haymarket, 1997), Fiona Shaw pretends to be Richard II (National Theatre, 1995) and so on. It is quite usual to see sex, age, region translated but the same does not go for race. It is OK for a black opera singer (Willard White, RSC, 1989) or even a black comedian (Lenny Henry, Northern Broadsides, 2009) to play Othello, but when a white actor such as Laurence Olivier does so (in his film of 1965), assuming a black identity reliant upon weird and “exotic” gestures or rolling Black and White Minstrel Show eyes, this is beyond the pale. The representation of Native Americans by the Wooster Group in this year’s execrable production of Troilus and Cressida resembled nothing so much as a children’s game of cowboys and Indians.
But must Shylock be played by a Jewish actor? Clearly not. Or, in the aftermath of the Paralympics, will the controversy surrounding the level of Oscar Pistorius’ disability dog every future casting director of Richard III? The principle of matching the actor’s race, language, sex, physique and age is immaterial in some roles, whereas a fundamental level of “authenticity” is required in others - a white Othello will attract unwelcome attention whereas an able-bodied Richard III will not.
Taken together, Julius Caesar, Much Ado and Troilus are not so much representations of John Bercow’s kaleidoscopic utopia as the RSC’s clumsy attempt to “do the Shakespeare in different voices”. Of the three, the wisest production, the only one to pose serious political questions about contemporary racial politics, is Julius Caesar. Setting the play in a contemporary African dictatorship is fitting. The kind of ruthlessness, arbitrariness and mercilessness displayed by a Robert Mugabe are completely those of a Caesar deaf, impotent and paranoid.
But there remains something more troubling. Richard Dowden’s programme note sailed dangerously close to racism. It was accompanied by a picture of the “Sacred Baobab Tree [from] Senegal”. Julius Caesar is a play full of magic - a soothsayer, the weird fertility rites associated with Lupercal, prophecies, dreams, a ghost. The inclusion of the sacred tree and Dowden’s note stressed that the magic of Africa is not unlike the superstition of the ancient Romans (with their household gods and goddesses) or the un-civilisation of the Elizabethans: “Life for most Africans is closer to the way all human beings lived until recent times…The sun feels closer, the sky higher, the rain heavier.”
Implicit here is the equation of Romans, Elizabethans and contemporary Africans. The elephantine word lurking dangerously in the room is “primitive”. Let me be clear: Doran’s production is not racist but its setting (and its programme) takes for granted a set of assumptions about contemporary Africa that promote Western secular, scientific positivism over violent, atavistic exoticism.
Towards the end of Red Velvet, Aldridge struggles to formulate his passion for drama: “That’s the beauty of theatre…it’s…it’s about…getting under your skin.” In its rehearsal of the racial problems prompted by a black actor in a white theatre, Chakrabarti’s new play raises issues not merely about the subcutaneous location of difficult cultural questions but insists that such issues are also, in the most serious of ways, never more than skin deep.
Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association. He is co-editor of the 40th anniversary edition of Cahiers Elisabethains (2012) and author of Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift (2012).