Presented by Independent Theatre Company
Reviewed 22 November 2015
The test of a truly great play that concerns itself with a real-life protagonist is if one wants to find out more about the subject upon leaving the theatre. Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet passes the test magnificently.
The protagonist is Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play the role of ‘Othello’ in London during the 1830s – although, for many years, it was thought to have been Paul Robeson in the 1930s. Aldridge was called in by the management of the Covent Garden Theatre to take over the role from the most famous (at the time) “Othello”, Edmund Kean, who had collapsed on stage during a performance of the Shakespeare classic. The move, occurring while anti-slavery laws were brand new and still protested against quite strongly, saw the public adoring Aldridge, while the critics and upper classes treated him harshly and cruelly.
Chakrabarti’s script is clever and gloriously written and enhanced even more by Rob Croser’s wonderful production. Everything works: from Croser’s theatrical and yet very human direction, and beautiful, almost balletic scene changes, through to the excellent cast – each and every one of them a gem.
As Aldridge, Shedrick Yapkpai (himself the first African-born actor to play “Othello” in Australia) gives a brilliant performance, mixing arrogance with just enough humility to keep the audience interested and on his side. Aldridge was crucified by the critics, but this reviewer only has the highest praise for Yapkpai in this production.
Under Croser’s fine direction, humour is used to full effect by the cast, but in particular by Will Cox, giving yet another of his excellent performances; and Jett Zivkovic equalling Cox in strength of character. As Kean’s son (and obvious replacement), Charles, Cox has petulance and priggishness down to a fine art; whilst Zivkovic displays a good knowledge and understanding of youthful impetuousness and hilariously ‘over-acts’ (on purpose).
Domenic Panuccio is absolutely marvellous as French theatre manager Pierre Laporte, and his spell-binding scene with Yapkpai in Act Two is one of the highlights of the production. David Roach rounds out the male side of the cast well.
While Noma Mpala and Haley Smith do well in their roles, it is Isabella Rositano and Rebecca Plummer who more than shine in theirs. Rositano demonstrates great skill with language (as does Zivkovic) and diversity of characters, whilst Plummer, as English stage actress Ellen Tree captures the role perfectly and delivers beautifully rounded tones in her diction.
Susan Gey-Gardner’s dramatic and theatrical lighting design is the final icing on this absolutely delicious ‘red velvet’ cake.
Reviewed by Brian Godfrey