Race, national security and wonky submarines
It ends, effectively, with a black Othello ‘whiting up’ as Lear. I don’t like to give away the plot, but this was theatre at its very best. On Saturday night I caught the last performance of the brilliant ‘Red Velvet’ which has been playing to packed houses at North London’s Tricycle theatre in Kilburn. The play is both vivid and shocking in its raw portrayal of what happens when in 1833 the greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean collapses on stage whilst playing the Moor. The French Director decides to replace him with a black actor, to the horror of Kean’s absurd son who stands ready to take on the part.
Yes, once upon a time, men acted the parts of women, and white men played the parts of black men. ‘Red Velvet’ is the first play written by Lolita Chakrabati – whose husband, the remarkable actor Adrian Lester, plays the lead role. It also happens to be the first play put on by the Tricycle’s new Director, Indhu Rubasingham.
This is combined theatre power of a rare order. The performance takes us on a roller coaster of emotions and challenges us to wonder how far we have come in our attitudes to race and gender, and to question whether it is, even now, far enough.
‘Red Velvet’ has received a cascade of eulogies from the critics. Theatres from London’s West End to New York’s off-Broadway have been bidding to transfer it. And yet the crucible of this remarkable cutting-edge new drama is a small community based theatre in a less fashionable end of London.
The Tricycle has, like others, suffered swingeing cuts in its funding. Despite wall-to-wall programmes for every age in the community, from primary to old age, the state seems to see the theatre as in some way dispensable. Consequently in an area of high unemployment and housing deprivation, here is a ‘cultural’ resource that suddenly has to find some £300,000 to fund what it does.
The other day I re-Tweeted an article in the Guardian, which highlighted the deficiencies in Britain’s £10bn range of new ‘attack’ submarines. One wonders whether priorities have really been assessed. To what extent is the cohesion and development of our lives at home an important element of our national security? How do you balance the cultural and educational needs of a diverse society against the need to protect our shores?
The Tricycle Theatre, which in the past has staged dramatic reconstructions of the ‘Stephen Lawrence Inquiry‘; ‘The Iraq Inquiry‘ and much else is, I would argue, is another dimension of underpinning our domestic national security.
It also has the potential to become yet another element of this country’s ‘invisible exports’, and a key to some of the visible imports that lure so many tourists to these shores to wallow in our cultural riches.
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