Written by Jen Brown

Arts

Tipping the velvet

Shakespeare died 400 years ago but his legacy lives on even as far as LA. Jen Brown caught up with British actor Nicola Bertram to talk Othello, women playing men’s roles and suffering for her art.

Nicola Bertram as Ellen Tree in Red Velvet. Photo: Ed Krieger.

Nicola Bertram as Ellen Tree and Paul Outlaw as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet. Photos by Ed Krieger.

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti tells the true story of black American actor Ira Aldridge and the outrage he caused when stepping onto the prestigious London stage, in the lead role of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Prior to Aldridge’s appearance, Othello had been played by white actors in black makeup. The play illustrates the hostility Aldridge faced, not only from fellow actors and audiences, but from the London critics, who were seriously discomfited at his presence. Nicola Bertram is currently playing Ellen Tree, who played Desdemona to Aldridge’s Othello.

So what brought you from Manchester’s Coronation Street to these parts?

I’ve lived in California for nine years. My husband and I came here for work. I had just done a national commercial in the UK and the residuals were good. The house prices then were hitting the roof so it was either find a proper job and settle down or go on an adventure, so we packed our bags, along with our wonderful eight-year-old son and off we went to follow the American dream.

Did you always want to act?

Yes but I resisted the temptation for many years as I knew it would not be an easy road. It took me a long time to actually accept the fact that that was what I wanted to do.

You stood out from the cast of Red Velvet (to me) because of your beautiful crisp British accent. It wasn’t until the intermission that I realised you WERE British! Were you trained to speak in those elegant tones or are you naturally posh?

No, I am so not posh. I’m from a working-class area of Manchester. My mother is from Devon and my father was a Geordie, who had a very strong Geordie accent. Luckily, accents are one of my strongest skills.

“I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Ira Aldridge, nor had most of the American population. I think it should be part of every school curriculum, in every state, and it should be celebrated.”

Do you miss Old Blighty? Do you, like me, sometimes crave a bit of cold and damp?

Yes, I miss the humour. Sometimes I find my dry humour is lost in translation. But I do love the open, generous and positive spirit of the Americans. As for the weather, I recently went to Vancouver for the first time and it reminded me of the cool fresh January mornings when I would park on Waterloo Bridge and stroll along the South Bank browsing through the books and feeling that sharp wind pinch my cheeks. Yes, I do like a bit of cool air.

What does it mean to you to be part of such a thought-provoking role and what did you already know about Ellen Tree?

It was the play not the role that grabbed me. I think this is an incredibly timely and important story. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Ira Aldridge, nor had most of the American population. I think it should be part of every school curriculum, in every state, and it should be celebrated. What an incredible man.

When it came to research there wasn’t much on Ellen Tree per se, there was more as Mrs Charles Keen (her fiance in the play, Charles, was actually her husband in real life). They were incredibly successful actor managers and were very devoted to each other.

She retired from acting after her husband died. Given the limited amount of information available to me, I decided to approach the role like any other and create it from scratch. It’s all in the script. I incorporated historical references from the period and the rest came through the rehearsal process.

red velvet 1 by EdKriegerProfessionally, who has been your biggest inspiration?

Maggie Smith – I used to imitate her all the time as a child. My impression of her playing Miss Jean Brodie was very popular with friends and house guests. I also love British actress Helen McCrory’s theatre work and Kathryn Hunter, who I saw do the most amazing Lear. I didn’t see a woman playing a man’s role but a human being, a soul, a crushed, wretched thing made of blood and bones. It really made you think about what it is to be human.

What role would you most like to play?

I love the Scottish Play and could probably still get away with playing Lady M, depending on how old they cast the title role. Tamora, Queen of the Goths in Titus Andronicus. Constance in King John has a great speech. There are so many great female roles still to play. Not to mention the male roles that can be cast as female.

What advice would you give to a young person today, who wants to go into acting as a career?

Only do it if you really do not want to do anything else in the world. It has to be your passion. You have to love it with all your heart, otherwise you will never endure the endless rejection and the bitter disappointments, which every actor has to suffer, no matter how successful they become.

And if it is for you, then always do your best work, no matter the production, product or job. Be prepared, do your homework, focus on the craft and the rest will follow.

@MmePcato

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Written by Jen Brown

A Hollywood based Geordie pensioner living on her wits. Affectionately known as Nano to her granddaughters. Instantly likeable. (Daughter's words!) @MmePcato