If I had to name five British male actors on whom I would slap a 'National Treasure' export ban if they ever planned to move to Hollywood, Adrian Lester would be one of them. Long ago he was an enchanting Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl's As You Like It; more recently I've seen him play Hamlet for Peter Brook, Henry V at the National and Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
Now he's back at the Tricycle in Kilburn, starring as the American 19th century actor Ira Aldridge in a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti (who happens to be his wife). As you might expect, Lester gives a charismatic performance, the highlight coming when he performs a scene from Othello -- a role he will be taking on for real at the National Theatre in 2013. If this was a foretaste, I will be first in the queue to see him play the part for real.
Indu Rubasingham's production boasts a very talented cast, including Charlotte Lucas as Aldridge's acting partner Ellen Tree, and Ryan Kiggell as the cold and pompous Charles Kean, the son of the famous actor Edmund. It is Edmund's sudden indisposition that leads Pierre Laporte, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to gamble on engaging Aldridge as a replacement; the climax of the story is a blazing row between Aldridge and Laporte, well played by Eugene O'Hare. But the dramatic impact generated by Lester and the rest of the cast, while making for a thoroughly entertaining evening, can't disguise the fact that Chakrabarti's play has quite a few flaws.
Structurally, the story is bookended in very traditional style by an opening and a closing scene showing Aldridge in the sunset of his career, backstage in his dressing room in (of all places) Lodz in Russian-ruled Poland. The venerable actor is irritated but just a little intrigued to be visited by another outsider, the young female journalist Halina (an excellent performance by newcomer Rachel Finnigan) who probes him about why so many years have passed since he performed in London. But despite this use of flashback, too many aspects of Aldridge's life and career remain unilluminated. Despite having a stellar international career performing Shakespeare, it's hard to imagine that Aldridge would be the subject of a play today if he had not been black. But the play seems to tiptoe rather nervously around the issue of racism; it remains the elephant in the room, buried in the subtext but never confronted.
The dialogue stays in a jaunty modern mode, with no attempt to imitate the cadences or vocabulary of early 19th century London. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, but it's clear to me that Chakrabarti is at her most comfortable when she is recreating familiar green room repartee and backchat between actors. When she tries to give a wider period context to what is happening, her grasp seems shaky. Above all, she doesn't seem able to tell us how Aldridge himself experienced his life as an outsider, a black American in an all-white theatrical world two centuries ago. He opens up and he loses his temper, but by the end of the play I still found him a mystery. He has a white wife, Margaret, but she only appears briefly and seems to lack any real dramatic function, as do some of the other 12 characters portrayed on stage. There's no dramatic irony in this play which would allow the audience a different point of view on the action. It's not badly written, but it doesn't approach the subtlety with which Tom Stoppard or Alan Bennett might have tackled the same theme. At just over two hours including an interval, the play feels as though it could have benefited from some more rewriting and some additional scenes set outside the world of theatre.