A LETTER FROM LONDON: Howard Davies, Mark Gatiss, Adrian Lester, Ken Stott and Anna Friel Enliven the London Stage

By Ruth Leon
28 Nov 2012

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet.
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Elsewhere on the Rialto, there's great excitement over Lolita Chakrabarti's new play Red Velvet at the Tricycle. The excitement, admittedly, was initially largely because her husband, Adrian Lester, temporarily back in London and back on-stage from his successful Hollywood career in film and television, is the star. As Ira Aldridge, a black American actor called upon to replace an ailing Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his age in his greatest role, Othello, Lester is pitch-perfect, both as the upstart young Ira or the embittered old Ira, moving beautifully across a stage designed to frame his performance.

Red Velvet, set in 1833, and based on a true story, tells its tale of racism and prejudice simply and well, with Ira's arrogance and supercilious belief in his own talent and the lack of it in others, not endearing him to his fellow actors who include Edmund Kean's son who, until Ira's arrival, intended to take over the role in his father's absence. Aldridge was blowing the wind of change into a London theatre that wasn't nearly ready for it. Today, when it would be unthinkable for a white actor to play Othello, it is worth remembering that there was a time when it was unthinkable for a black actor to play any leading role, especially that of a black man. If Red Velvet doesn't soon make it to the West End and thence to Broadway, I'll be amazed.

It is, in fact, amazing how much classic, or at least, period drama there is around London. Racine's Berenice, that somewhat moth-eaten icon of the French theatrical tradition is at the Donmar Warehouse in another attempt to tell about a man who no longer wants his longtime mistress, a personal tragedy compounded by the fact that she's a Queen of one country (Egypt) and he's the emperor of another (Rome). The truth is, Racine is a terrible bore. Composed, like all his plays, of long soliloquies, Berenice has torrents of words, saying very little except, "Don't leave me," and "I don't want to, but I must." The formalization of the classical form, highlighting the emotional extremes, is actually close to ridiculous despite a delicate performance from Ann-Marie Duff. I found myself thinking of that old Sophie Tucker vaudeville song, "If kisses won't hold the man you love," I mused, "then your tears won't bring him back." If that's what I was thinking in the midst of tragedy, it isn't nearly tragic enough.

There's a perfectly serviceable Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville starring Ken Stott and Anna Friel. If Lindsay Posner's production didn't make me rethink my understanding of this great play, at least it is clear, and if you've never seen Chekhov's masterpiece, this is a good place to start.

In Howard Davies' modern dress production of Howard Brenton's 55 Days at Hampstead, a play about the last days of the late, unlamented King Charles I before he was beheaded, only Charles I, played by the comic actor Mark Gatiss, wears the velvet suit and lace collar of his 17th-century period. I never worked out why. This is actually a fascinating story of a King who believed that, since God had anointed him, he could not be judged by any mortal, and his nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, who knew he alone heard the voice of God. A great many men in suits stand around on the stage disputing how to bring down the King — indistinguishable, no matter what their faction.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.