Play it again, Lolita

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By A Bengali actress-playwright has made a splash in London with her debut play about a 19th century African-American actor. Amit Roy meets Lolita Chakrabarti, who has just won a prestigious award in a stage production. Pic: John Haynes
  • Published 2.12.12

A Bengali girl made a huge impact last week at the 58th London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. From a long list starting with 11 nominations and a shortlist of three, Lolita Chakrabarti won the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright, named after a former editor of the paper.

“It was wonderful,” said Lolita as she mingled at the Savoy Hotel with the crème de la crème of British show biz — everyone from Danny Boyle to Dame Judi Dench.

Lolita is an actress with a long list of stage and television credits. However, her debut play Red Velvet which premiered in October at the Tricycle, an experimental theatre in north London, proved so successful that it became almost impossible to wangle a ticket.

The play tells of the trials and tribulations of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor, who played Othello at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1833. In those days — in fact, until the 1990s — black actors didn’t get to play Othello because the role was the preserve of white actors who “blacked up”.

In Red Velvet, Aldrige was played by Lolita’s husband, Adrian Lester, a British actor, director and writer, the son of immigrants from Jamaica.

“The play is based on historical fact,” stressed Lolita.

After playing Othello in London, Aldridge went on to have a critically acclaimed career across Russia, Poland, Prussia, France and even had a state funeral when he died in 1867 in Poland. “When I unearthed this story I couldn’t believe nobody knew about him. That was the tragedy, really, that nobody had heard of him after his illustrious career,” she said.

“I wrote it with a very modern eye,” continued Lolita. “I took the issues that were affecting people of the day — racism, sexism, unemployment, things that affect us all today.”

To tell Lolita’s own story, it is necessary to go back to Calcutta in the early 1960s when her parents, Bidhan and Ruma Chakrabarti, left for England. He wanted to train as a junior doctor, go where the work was, gain experience and return home. Starting at the Middlesex Hospital in London, he went to Rugby, Hull, and then Birmingham. He acquired an FRCS and became an orthopaedic surgeon.

Lolita’s elder sister, Reeta, was born in 1964 in London, and Lolita in the Yorkshire city of Hull in 1969.

The girls grew up in Birmingham. Reeta, who went on to Exeter College, Oxford, to read English and French, is today a familiar face on television as the BBC’s education correspondent.

At 18, after finishing school at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Lolita moved to London after managing to get into the highly competitive Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) where she trained for three years to be an actress.

Lolita’s parents — her father spent 25 years in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham — were not especially lovers of the arts. The event which probably changed her life at 15 was a school theatre trip to London to see John Mills in The Magistrate.

The name of Lolita’s award winning play can be traced back to that trip.

“There is something about theatre that just seduces you,” recalled Lolita. “There was the red velvet of the seats, (and) the red velvet curtains.”

When she was 10, her parents returned to Calcutta for 18 months. The two sisters studied at the Calcutta International School. “Then we came back to England,” said Lolita.

“When I lived in Calcutta it made a huge impression on me,” she admitted. “The Bengali in me manifests itself completely in everything — in my world view. I am very proud to be Bengali, I love the language. I wish I could read (Bengali). I mean I don’t speak Bengali at home but I can speak Bengali if I am pushed.”

She and her husband have two daughters, Lila and Jasmine, aged 11 and 8, who have been brought up on theatre from an early age. There has also been one family holiday in Calcutta.

Something her parents did was introduce her to Satyajit Ray’s films. She met the director’s son, Sandip Ray, and secured his permission to allow her to adapt Devi, Satyajit Ray’s 1960 film, for a five-part radio play for BBC Woman’s Hour. “I was very honoured to speak to Sharmila Tagore,” she said. Tagore was the film’s central character.

“I have been acting for 20 years; I have been reading a lot of dialogue for a long time,” Lolita agreed. “I have read some great things and I have read some terrible things so I guess you learn in between. Yes, I suppose I’ve got a good ear.”

Lolita could settle one issue — her parents did not take her name from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel whose start she can recite: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo, Lee, Ta.”

“No, they had not read Nabokov at all,” laughed Lolita. “They had no idea. I think to them Lalita was a very popular Indian name. My dad gave us a slightly different spelling. So instead of Lalita I became Lolita and Rita became Reeta with two ees. I gave the book to my mum when I was 24 — she was quite shocked.”