Lolita Chakrabarti on Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge was a Black American Actor who came to England in 1824.
His second job was here at The Old Vic, which was then the Royal Cobourg Theatre, in 1825.
He played here for seven weeks and he did five different shows. He toured every theatre and city you can imagine — Russia, France, Sweden, Prussia, Hungary, Austria. You name it, Ira toured there!
When he played the Maly Theatre in Russia, the tickets were so oversubscribed they moved him to the Bolshoi. And he sold the Bolshoi out several times over, and was the highest paid actor ever in Russia at the time.
I spent 15 years researching Ira and getting Red Velvet, my play, on. He imagined himself in a profession that didn’t want him, that wouldn’t cast him — he cast himself in roles. In the end of his career, he had a repertoire in his head of 40 characters. Theatre then was very different. You played different parts on different nights. You might play three different roles in one evening. He could turn his hand to 40 different characters, like that, so I think he was extremely hard-working and tenacious. He was very good!
One reviewer talked about, to try and explain Ira Aldridge’s talent was like trying to take water from the sea with a spoon. And they talked about when he went to kill his Desdemona, they were frightened for the actress’s life, because it was so real and so ferocious and so completely believable.
To know that Ira Aldridge was here almost 200 years ago and that he defied everything that society set down for him… He shouldn’t have been an actor. He was a black man. He should have either been a slave or, perhaps, a preacher. But he defied all that and he loved the theatre, and he loved Shakespeare, and he did it. And to have done that when the expectation was so low, I think he’s an inspiration for people now, but I think he also goes before all of us and we all stand on his shoulders.