Move forward a couple of centuries and, for the next play, the audience finds itself in 19th century London, bookended by two short scenes that take place in Poland some 30 years later. Red Velvet is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring her husband Adrian Lester (Mickey of Hustle fame) it tells the story when the legendary English actor Edmund Kean is taken ill and his role as Othello is taken over by a black American actor, Ira Aldridge; his style is considerably more avant garde than that of the English cast, with their ‘teapot’ acting techniques (imagine the item and then the comparable actor’s stance), with the majority of the cast using this as a ready-made excuse to display their prejudices. And all this is set against the background of the Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the efforts of the radical French producer of the play, the English press is clearly not ready for this, and as a result of damning criticism of the play and his acting style, Aldridge never appears on the London stage again. A final note: Lester will be taking on the role of Othello at London’s National Theatre next spring.
The final play I’m writing about is This House at the National Theatre. It’s currently showing at the flexible Cottesloe space with the downstairs seats arranged as in the House of Commons. The play tells of the five years of knife-edge Labour government between 1974 and 1979 – knife-edge because with wafer thin majorities, they only hung on by the skin of their teeth and by ferrying in ‘walking wounded’ and those almost at death’s door for crucial votes. The main focus is on the whips’ office, a topical subject in the ‘pleb-gate’ context, and the wheeler-dealer shennanigans necessary to retain power. As with so many productions at the Cottesloe, it’s currently sold out; however, the good news is that it’s transferring to the large Olivier stage at the National in the new year.
The acting profession has always been a precarious one, but such is the passion for it that many youngsters embark on this career path despite knowing, or perhaps ignoring the fact, that any success at all let alone mega-stardom may never be attained.
I recently attended the launch of the So & So Arts Club, whose aim is to help and support aspiring and established actors and others involved in the theatre business. It’s basically a networking club which for a modest annual fee of £30 also offers free advertising for shows, professional workshops and seminars and concessions on tickets and rehearsal and performance spaces.
But the networking is the main thing and this was clearly manifested at the launch. The room positively buzzed with the ‘hi’s’, ‘how are you’s’ and shrieks of recognition as the mostly young crowd met and greeted non-stop. Fuelled by the bar (and a welcoming free drink), the optimism and confidence was palpable. Many were dressed up to the nines and no-one was more enthusiastic than the club’s founder, Sarah Berger. In her welcoming speech she gave the answers to so many dreams, outlining what the club was designed to do and what it already has done.
I engaged in conversation with a few obviously talented members. One, a guy called Nathan, had come from Malta to study at a drama school in West London. He must have had talent at his auditions because he also had been offered a place at a school in New York. Since graduating, he had done some radio work, some adverts and a number of performances, but confessed that to keep body and soul together his main occupation was that of a waiter. This must have been true of so many of the bright young things in the room. Those actors that make it big are such a tiny proportion of the profession, and although acting in modern times is no longer restricted to the stage, with television, radio and the internet offering more outlets for talent, the increase in numbers competing for jobs has probably meant that there is still around 80% out of work at any one time.
Yet how many become disillusioned? Not many, I’ll warrant. There are not many professions where there’s such determination to carry on despite all the knockbacks. And thank goodness for that, as my life like so many others would be much the poorer without theatre and those that create it. Some might argue that in a time of recession the arts are not a top priority. I would disagree with that. When life’s hard, there’s a real need for its more esoteric side, and the pleasure theatre and the related arts give is immeasurable.
I wish Sarah Berger and her new venture, the So & So Arts Club, every success, its aims are laudable and should, in many practical ways, help those struggling to find their way to the top – or even the middle! In a currently rather dreary and pessimistic Britain (with the exception of course of the life-affirming Olympics) it would be nice to think that all the enthusiasm that manifested itself at the club’s launch will continue unabated throughout many of the potential theatrical careers.
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.