This may be a "filler" to Kenneth Branagh Garrick season — slipped in long after the original year-long season was announced, and without Branagh directly connected to it as actor and/or director, as he is with every other show — but it is very much of a piece with some of the season's other preoccupations, such as asserting the primacy of the leading actor and offering glimpses of the theatre world from the backstage.
We've already had Harlequinade, Terence Rattigan's slight but affectionate, Noises Off-like comedy about a production falling apart, and still to come is The Entertainer, John Osborne's play about a vaudevillian going off the rails.
Now we have a revival of actor-turned-playwright Lolita Chakrababarti's debut play, first seen at the Tricycle in 2012. Set backstage in the West End of 19th century, it recounts the true story of black American actor Ira Aldridge who, in 1833, caused a sensation when he took over the title role of Othello after Edmund Kean, who was playing it, fell ill onstage and subsequently died. The impresario who cast and promoted him took a big risk: other members of the company regarded the new recruit with great suspicion, and the London critics greeted him with reviews of naked racism.
It's a salutary reminder about how far we've come that Adrian Lester — who reprises a superb performance that won him the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor — has played Othello himself at the National, and the days of the black-face white English actor playing the role have long been banished. (Intriguing, though, to see Lester's Aldridge 'whiting-up' to play King Lear).
But if we are now mostly in an age of colour-blind casting in British theatre (except, dispiritingly, last year when Trevor Nunn directed an all-white War of the Roses at Kingston's Rose Theatre, which he claimed was for reasons of 'historical verisimilitude'), here's a chastening story of racism at the heart of the British theatrical establishment, on both sides of the critical pen.
Indhu Rubasingham's production, originally scaled to the Tricycle, looks a little underpopulated on the larger Garrick Theatre stage, and is also slightly over-projected by some of its supporting cast, with a lot of shouting and bad foreign accents. It undermines what is otherwise an effective slice of theatrical history.
"Lester’s magnificent acting makes you nostalgic for a vanished gestural style in this welcome revival of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play about racial prejudice."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
External links to full reviews from popular press