Paul T Davies reviews An Octoroon by Dion Boucicault adapted by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now playing at the National Theatre.
The Dorfman, National Theatre.
19 June 2018
Dion Boucicault was, between 1840 and 1880, the most famous and prolific playwright on the world stage, with Queen Victoria among his many admirers, and he established, among other things, the royalty system for dramatists. Now largely forgotten, his 1859 play The Octoroon, based on the horrors of slavery that he witnessed in New Orleans, opened to both critical acclaim and outrage, offending both sides of the slavery issue. Now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins presents his adaptation of the play, and the opening prologue spoken by a black playwright about what it means to be black sets the tone brilliantly. Of course, in Boucicault’s time, white actors blacked up to play black slaves. When we watch a black actor white up, a white actor red up to play a Native American and an Asian actor black up, we know we are in for a piece that gets to the heart of racism. What isn’t known at the beginning is how entertaining and original the play will be.
This is down to Ned Bennett’s innovative, energetic and astonishing direction that embraces the melodrama of the original, and performs it, as much as possible, in the Nineteenth century style. Originally staged at the Orange Tree Theatre, and retaining its intimacy, the fourth wall is not just broken down, it is kicked in and destroyed, with direct address and the mechanics of theatre exposed to the audience. Black playwright and Boucicault squabble about approaches to theatre and how things were “better then”, Meta theatre is heaped on as we watch the crew perform a scene change as Jacobs-Jenkins explains why we can’t have the Act Four finale of a burning ship. Yet we do get flames, we do get swashbuckling action and the production constantly dropped my jaw in its audacity and ambition. In one effective sequence, Jacobs-Jenkins complains to Boucicault that the plot device of a photograph is a useless revelation in our age of selfies. Then he shows us just one photograph that sears the horror of racism onto your retina.
The ensemble is terrific. Playing the playwright, the “hero” George and the “baddie” Closky, Ken Nwosu gives an astonishingly physical, energetic and powerful performance, literally leaping from one character to another in the second half. If there is to be a better male performance than his in London this year, then I’ll want to see it. Kevin Trainor is superbly mischievous and sardonic as the inhabitant of Boucicault, and Alistair Toovey conveys internal racism perfectly as house slave Pete. The women, with even more layers of oppression on them, are excellent. Iola Evans is hauntingly vulnerable as the Octoroon Zoe, Celeste Dodwell a brilliantly spoilt Grace and Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole comment and narrate on events with wry observations and humour. Each blackout leaves you wondering what you will see next, and Br’er Rabbit, (superbly physical Cassie Clare), is the stuff of nightmares. The piece is scored live by cellist Kwesi Edman, and the lighting and sound become characters themselves.
Staged in the round, the genius of the play is that we simultaneously laugh at the melodrama yet fully engage with the impact and legacy of racism. True, the final act does feel down beat after the huge theatrics of the fourth, but that matters little when you are faced with such originality and style. With the welcome news that Nine Night is to transfer into the Trafalgar Studios in December, I can only hope that An Octoroon will follow suite to a larger theatre or a further engagement. Until then, fight for a seat for this sell out run. It’s extraordinary.
Until 18 July 2018