Published on 26 Nov 2012

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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5 reader comments

  1. Andrew Dundas says:

    Astute class submarines are probably much more useful to us and to NATO than aircraft carriers. We need to develop their technologies that enable Astute to be re-fitted quicker & safer than other nuclear powered vessels. We should recognise that early developments of every kind always require modifications in the light of operating experiences.
    It’s a process called ‘the learning curve’. I imagine that a ‘learning’ process applies to news broadcasters too. Or haven’t you ever learnt from experience?
    Astute is the first of an whole class of submarines that will enable the Royal Navy to protect the North Atlantic and Mediterranean that are so vital to our interests.
    Personally I welcome the progress Barrow has made so far. I look forward to the time when we’re able to operate drone mini-submarines that also exploit our world-beating expertise in underwater vessels.

  2. Saltaire Sam says:

    The problem is, Jon, that theatre doesn’t allow our politicians to strut their stuff on the world stage in the way that nuclear weapons do – no matter how much nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the threats we face and no matter how hypocritical we look when telling other countries they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons.

    The only justification for us retaining nuclear weapons is as a deterrent, which implies we feel we have reason to fear attack. Why is that, I wonder? Perhaps our imperial history, perhaps our continuing interference in other people’s business, perhaps because we arrogantly believe we have all the answers.

  3. Philip says:

    But politicians love their nuclear submarines – the national equivalent of a bald middle-aged man’s sports car

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    The submarines are not for “attack.”

    They are for “defence.”

    Or something :-)

    Presumably to defend us against the might of North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Aghanistan and Venezuela.

    While we’re at it, has anyone found WMD in Iraq yet? Couldn’t Blair have a look while he’s visiting the Middle East on a “peace” misssion?…..That’s if he could stop the Iraqi people laughing hysterically between floods of tragic tears………

  5. Oscar the Wolf says:

    So, Andrew Dundas, how will either aircraft carriers or subs protect us from current threats? Are Al Qaeda planning an attack via the North Atlantic? Your views will cost us billions……

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