Ira Aldridge was controversially called in to replace unwell actor Edmund Kean in the role, which had previously always been played by white actors with black make-up. Although he was a talented and experienced performer, Aldridge’s casting by French theatre manager Pierre Laporte sparked a backlash from critics.
UK actor and writer Lolita Chakrabarti was so fascinated by his story she wrote Red Velvet in 2012, with the role of Aldridge played by her actor husband, Adrian Lester.
This production by Adelaide Independent Theatre stars Liberian actor Shedrick Yarkpai who, coincidentally, was the first African-born actor to play Othello in Australia in 2011.
Director by Rob Croser, Independent Theatre’s artistic director and recent recipient of Adelaide Theatre Guild’s Richard Flynn Award for lifetime achievement, Red Velvet is more a political and social commentary than a biography. It is set at a time when women were still relatively new to acting and racism was the order of the day; even the liberal supporters of Aldridge failed to stand tall against the tide.
Yarkpai plays the demanding and complex role of Aldridge with strength, subtlety and humour. Aldridge was a surprisingly forthright character for that era, but was committed to his art.
Rebecca Plummer is excellent as flighty leading lady Ellen Tree and as Othello’s wife Desdemona. She portrays feminine strength and charm against the background of sexism.
There are several dual roles played by Jett Zivkovic, Isabella Rositano and David Roach; these take a few moments to get used to, but display the talent of these actors. Noma Mpala plays the shy black maid Connie, who has few lines but sees the unfolding story as current audiences would; in many ways, she is the eyes of the audience.
Domenic Panuccio (pictured above) has the more difficult role of French theatre manager Pierre Laporte character – a supporter of Aldridge who lacks the strength needed in crisis. He is contrasted by the over-the-top Charles Kean, played with great energy and humour by Will Cox, who loses the role to Aldridge and vents his prejudice for all to see.
Red Velvet is an unusual but enlightening and entertaining play. It exposes an important piece of history which may have been long forgotten but was a step in the journey to a better world through art.
Independent Theatre is presenting Red Velvet at the Goodwood Institute until November 28.