I had seen the play in 2012, when it played at the Tricycle Theatre very off West End and I loved it then. The story of now almost forgotten Ira Aldridge, the first Othello of colour in London, who was run out of town after only two shows, and made it in the rest of the world was gripping and heartwrenching and Adrian Lester, calmly putting white make-up on to play Lear, was an image that rocked me to the core.
It’s even better now. The casual discrimination displayed in every word the fellow – white – actors utter, the thoughtless xenophobia and therefore hostility against Ira Aldridge comes through as even more pronounced in the light of a global refugee crisis. Add to that the artistic “war” between Kean’s baroque and stencilled way of staging Othello, and Aldridge’s much more modern, method interpretation of the Moor and you can see the characters clash. It is due to Lolita Chakrabarti’s writing that is timeless and yet so current, (and Indhu Rubasingham’s directing) that this play elicits gasps from the audience and tears at the end. And it is thanks to the brilliant cast that the play has you entranced.
Ira, now an old man, is playing in a Polish town – best paid actor of all times-, when a very young reporter comes in and tries to interview him. And she asks the one question that you do not ask: Why aren’t you working in London.
It is in flashbacks that Ira remembers the humiliation, the hatred and desperation that had cut his stay short. All that just because his skin was not white. It is a subtle kind of revenge that he has to white-face in the end, to play King Lear …
Adrian Lester is a force of nature, full of passion, fury, desperation and brilliance in this part. His monologues are a joy to watch and listen to. When he recollects his first theatrical experiences in America, his friendship with Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott) he paints the joy and happiness with his words. When he begs Laporte to let him stay he breaks every heart in the audience. He certainly broke mine.
For me Lester is currently the best and most versatile Shakespeare actor Europe has. To watch him on stage is a privilege.