Tricycle opener from husband and wife team

Lolita Chakrabarti teams up with her husband actor Adrian Lester, for a play about Ira Aldridge to open Indhu Rubasingham’s first season

Working alongside your husband isn’t everyone’s ideal, but when you’ve written a play that he’s starring in, it can get complicated.

“Working together has actually felt very easy, the hardest thing is the childcare,” says Lolita Chakrabarti of arrangements for her two daughters with actor Adrian Lester.

“We try to have only one of us working at a time, but in this business it doesn’t always work like that.”

Then there’s having to separate their “business lives” from their personal lives.

“He’s been my greatest supporter as a writer. When I wondered what was the point, he urged me to keep going. But it was never a done deal that he would be in the play because it had to be good enough for him to do it. He’s a great actor and needs material that allows him to grow.”

It was the Hustle star who first planted the seeds for a play about the little-known Shakespearean performer Ira Aldridge – the only black actor honoured with a plaque at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

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“He did a reading at a theatre festival in 1998 and came home and told me the bare bones of Ira’s story – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him. I’ve since discovered that really experienced theatre practitioners hadn’t heard of him.”

Ahead of his hotly anticipated Othello at the National Theatre next year, Lester takes the lead in Red Velvet at Kilburn’s much smaller Tricycle Theatre, which centres on the moment when Aldridge stepped into the role of the “Moor of Venice” at the 11th hour. Chakrabarti, who met Lester when they both trained at RADA, says that, while there are tranches of Shakespeare’s play in her own, Lester’s two performances “will be very different”.

“It’s very strange for him doing it as a 19th century actor. The style was so different then. But fundamentally what links all great actors is an element of truth that moves you. The more truthful you are, the more you can affect your audience.”

Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge attended the African Free School set up by the Manumission Society to provide an education for the children of freed slaves and people of colour.

His first acting roles were at New York’s African American Theatre playing, among other parts, Romeo and Hamlet.

But he moved to England in 1825 because it offered greater opportunity at a time when slavery in the US was widespread.

“To rise through the ranks (as a black man) would be impossible whereas abolitionists here had started the shift banning slavery on British soil in 1807,” says Chakrabarti.

The move also offered Aldridge the opportunity for some thespian self-invention, creating a dubious biography that included a grandfather who was a Senegalese Christian chief and a well- connected English wife.

“He did elaborate his associations and exaggerate aspects of his life. He called himself the African Rosius, after a great Roman actor, and said that his first wife was the daughter of a politician and his second wife was a Swedish baroness and they weren’t.”

His first known role was playing a noble slave in The Revolt Of Surinam and he went on to work steadily in the provinces, playing numerous white characters, Shylock, Richard III and King Lear.

She ascribes Aldridge’s remarkable success to being “indisputably a very good actor”, able to make audiences suspend their prejudices, but also by tapping into a groundswell of reform whereby audiences could root for him as the “underdog”.

Red Velvet centres on a true incident in April 1833 when Aldridge stood in for the tragedian Edmund Keane as Othello. The greatest actor of his generation collapsed on stage and died a month later, while Aldridge’s performance was extremely well received.

Chakrabarti plays on the ripples as undercurrents of racial prejudice in Othello are echoed on the streets outside the theatre when a riot erupts over the imminent vote on the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

“Ira would stand up in provincial theatres and give a speech about his “unfortunate shackled race”. It was a very heated time with pro and anti-abolitionists and a lot of money to be lost if the plantations couldn’t use slave labour. In my interpretation, everything he did was political.”

Currently working on a film script for another collaborative project with Lester, Chakrabarti has previously worked extensively as an actress appearing in TV soap The Bill and The Tricycle’s Afghanistan season, The Great Game.

“I started dabbling with writing a few years after leaving RADA and did a lot of stuff quietly,” says Chakrabarti, confessing she found the discipline of working without commission or deadline “hard to crack”.

“I wrote a film script, then a book of short stories which I was proud of and it showed me I could tell a good story. But I found it hard to write and act at the same time. I think you have one creative pot and it takes the same kind of energy to do both.

“It’s hard to find the balance because I love acting and writing is hard.

“Performance energy is very tiring but writing energy is very intense.”

Red Velvet is at the Tricycle from October 11 until November 24.