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Adrian Lester: Taking centre stage


IT’S A role he’s well-versed with, having played it for the first time back in 2012 at London’s Tricycle Theatre. He then reprised the role for US audiences at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York.

Now, Adrian Lester is back on stage as Ira Aldridge, breathing new life into the revered 19th Century actor for the third time.

Undertaking the starring role in the award-winning production Red Velvet, the Birmingham-born actor admits that it is nerve-wracking taking on such a mammoth part, even though he’s done it twice before.

“You look at what Aldridge achieved and you go, ‘how can I play him?’,” says the actor, perhaps best-known for his role in the hit BBC series, Hustle. “But it’s about finding the right methods.”

Always on hand to offer advice on said methods is Red Velvet’s director Indhu Rubasingham. But even closer to home is the play’s writer, Lolita Chakrabarti, who also happens to be Lester’s wife.

“We give each other advice,” Lester says of his working relationship with his wife of 19 years. “I gave feedback on the script and she gave advice on how she thinks Ira should be. But in the rehearsal room, it’s down to Indhu the director to take care of the interpretation of every character and every line, and if she needs something changed, she’ll go back to my wife and say, ‘I think we need to change this.’

“That was the relationship we had when we first did the play. It was a real bouncing of ideas between all of us.”

The result proved fruitful with the play earning Chakrabarti the Charles Wintour Evening Standard Award in 2012. The husband and wife duo then scored success the following year at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards, with Lester scooping the prize for best actor and Chakrabarti taking home the award for most promising playwright.

Lester is superb as Aldridge – the revered stage star, who was the first black actor to play Othello in London – and the play is set during the public riots over the abolition of the Slavery Act in 1833.

Featuring imagined experiences based on Aldridge’s true story, Red Velvet is set in London’s Theatre Royal in 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello – and Aldridge has been asked to take over the role.

STAGE STAR: Ira Aldridge

Red Velvet examines how the cast, critics and audience react to the revolution taking place in the theatre, as the public outside the theatre riot in the streets over the abolition of slavery.

The play’s success is perhaps all the more poignant today, with the lack of diversity in the arts being a hot topic in recent times. Though Aldridge is now widely acknowledged as a true ambassador for Shakespeare, the actor faced immense prejudice in his day.

Following his Othello stage debut, the actor received a host of racist and patronising reviews from critics, who deemed it highly inappropriate for a black actor to have undertaken the celebrated Shakespearian role.

Though Lester recognises that black actors have come a long way since Aldridge’s day, he says that there is still a stark difference in the way black actors are recognised in comparison to their non-black counterparts.

“It’s definitely different,” the 47-year-old insists. “When you look around and see the examples of praising the excellence of your [non-black] peers, the wish to do that is greatly reduced for black actors. People need to be made aware of that and it’s good that so many people are pointing to facts and figures and giving our industry a kick up the bum and saying, ‘Ok, you’ve got to stop this now because it’s getting embarrassing.’

“The real place for a change is when someone makes a decision to pick up a certain script and put it into production. So a lot of the responsibility is with the producers, the directors and those who put money into films to market them. It’s those people that need to get a kick up the ass so they realise that the black pound and the black dollar is out there.”

SUPERB: Adrian Lester plays Ira Adridge in Red Velvet

Asked about the current furore over this year’s Oscars failing to nominate any black talents, Lester believes that there could be some value in black actors boycotting the event, as was suggested by actress Jada Pinkett-Smith.

“I think that letting the Oscars see that there is a reaction to the lack of inclusion is a way of letting them see that their decisions have an effect,” reasons the actor, who was awarded an OBE in 2013. “It’s one thing to complain. But when people see that there is a reaction to the lack of inclusion, I think that pushes people further when it comes to making changes.”

DREAM TEAM: Lester with his wife, writer Lolita Chakrabarti at the actor’s OBE presentation in 2013

Though Lester is optimistic that those changes will come, he admits that discussing the issue of diversity in the arts is exasperating at times.

“The fact that we need to talk about it; the fact that it’s still there to be talked about is exasperating at times. By now, it should be a subject that we can just get past so we can talk about the work.

“But I’m hopeful for that change. We step backwards sometimes, but right now, I’m dealing with Ira Aldridge’s story, so we’ve come a long way.”

Like Aldridge, Lester has also played Othello; a role that earned the father-of-two the best actor prize at the 2013 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. His other theatre credits include the musical, Company, for which he earned an Olivier Award; Henry V at the National Theatre; and the all-black adaptation of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which was staged at the Novello Theatre in 2009.

Ask Lester for his proudest professional achievement and after careful consideration, it’s his current role that gets the praise.

“I think it’s this play,” he says. “It was a labour of love for all of us so getting it on stage and receiving the positive responses we’ve had so far, makes me really proud.

“When we first did it, people were a bit like, ‘Which actor? Ira who?’ By the second time, that completely changed. And now that we’re doing it a third time around, people are referring to him by his surname. You know people are aware of who he was and what he achieved, when they say things like, ‘Aldridge was…’ People now know his name and that’s how it should be.”

Red Velvet continues at Garrick Theatre, London WC2 until February 27. Visit

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