Edmund Kean called him “excessively clever”, while The Times found his Othello “exceedingly natural… his grief and joy seem to spring from his heart”. For more than 40 years, after he arrived here in 1824, the American-born actor Ira Aldridge was a leading Shakespearean player in Britain, Europe and Russia, often in the face of appalling racial prejudice.
His extraordinary life is encapsulated in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet, set in London in 1833, when the 28-year-old Aldridge took over the role of Othello at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from a stricken Edmund Kean, then the greatest tragedian of his time.
To put these events in context, this was the same year that Britain abolished slavery in its colonies. Prejudice against people of colour was widely regarded as socially acceptable and there were active attempts to prevent Aldridge from appearing as Othello.
“In the name of propriety and decency, we protest against an interesting actress and decent girl like Miss Ellen Tree (Desdemona) being subjected by the manager of a theatre to the indignity of being pawed about by Mr Wallack’s black servant,” thundered a petition from the Athenaeum Club.
Aldridge played Othello at Drury Lane for only two performances. After that he was banned from acting in the major London theatres and took to touring the provinces, later accepting invitations to play European and Russian engagements, with a repertoire that included Richard III, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice, for which roles he whitened his skin with greasepaint. He also helped to establish a national theatre in Serbia.
Aldridge had come to Britain in the first place, aged just 17, in order to escape the discrimination suffered by black actors in America. Not long after arriving here he was given the opportunity to play scenes from Othello at a theatre in the East End of London.
His big break was in October 1825, when he played the leading role of an African prince, Oroonoko, in The Revolt of Surinam or A Slave’s Revenge about the evils of slavery, at the Royal Coburg Theatre (later renamed the Old Vic). It proved a huge box office success, despite a review in The Times that said it was impossible for Aldridge to pronounce English “because of the shape of his lips”.
Aldridge was often billed admiringly as “the African Roscius”, a reference to the Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus, a slave who taught Cicero how to speak in public, celebrated for his acting in tragedy and comedy.
He played his first full-length Othello at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in December 1825. The Brighton Gazette called him “an actor of real and undoubted talent”, adding that “his style was perfectly free from extravagance, his attitudes generally appropriate and graceful”.
Indhu Rubasingham, director of Red Velvet, believes Aldridge was genuinely innovative and groundbreaking in his acting. “The naturalism of his acting was unlike anything that had ever been seen before,” she says. “To have achieved what he did, Aldridge must have been not only incredibly talented but also incredibly passionate and tenacious.”
Because there is no visual or audio evidence of Aldridge in full flow, the challenge for Adrian Lester, who plays him in Red Velvet, was to suggest the actor’s physical and vocal approach to the role of Othello, which is the main focus of Chakrabarti’s play. How do you set about presenting a mid-19th century classical acting style, no matter how innovative, to a 21st-century audience?
“Their style may have been declamatory but actors at that time had to have incredible charisma in order to hold an audience of 2,000 in thrall,” explains Rubasingham. “We tend to forget it was the only form of mass entertainment at the time.”
Lester agrees it is “tricky because you have to make it big and at the same time you have to make a modern audience believe in you, so you find you are using many more muscles in your body than we do today. Your physical shape has to describe emotions and feelings.”
In 1858, aged 50, Aldridge made his first tour of Russia, where his performances had a political as well as an artistic impact. In one Russian town, his performance as Shylock was greeted by a delegation of local Jews thanking him for his sympathetic portrayal of an outcast from society, persecuted because of his race.
In his physically gruelling provincial tours of Russia, Aldridge was often the first to bring Shakespeare to the people. One commentator wrote at the time: “At the moment there is not one provincial city where the light of Shakespeare’s genius has not penetrated, thanks to this travelling tragedian.”
Aldridge considered returning to the US in the mid-1860s after the the end of the American Civil War – despite the fact that the prospects for black actors had not improved one jot in the 40 years since he had left. He wrote from Paris, authorising theatrical agents in New York to arrange for his appearance “in such towns which you think it will be prudent for me to visit”.
While in Paris he met Hans Christian Andersen, who recalled their encounter in his autobiography: “We shook hands and exchanged a few politenesses in English. I admit that it pleased me to have one of Africa’s gifted sons hail me as a friend.”
Before he was due to sail for New York, Aldridge contracted a lung infection while playing Othello in Lodz, Poland, and died on August 7 1867, aged 60. He was given a state funeral in Lodz. His death was reported all around the world.
Red Velvet runs at London’s Garrick Theatre until February 27
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