An Octoroon

Branden Jacob-Jenkins
Orange Tree Theatre
Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)

Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor Credit: Helen Murray
Vivian Oparah and Celeste Dodwell Credit: Helen Murray
Ken Nwosu and Alistair Toovey Credit: Helen Murray

An Octoroon was such a hit at the Orange Tree in Richmond that the piece by American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins was picked up by Rufus Norris and has now transferred to the National Theatre. In the adaptable Dorfman space, designer Georgia Lowe has been able to replicate the in-the-round staging that is the original venue’s trademark.

The play itself is a highly experimental blend that attempts to achieve several different things at the same time. The starting point is an example of Victorian Sensation, the light-hearted, melodramatic genre best remembered today as a result of the works of this play’s writer, Dion Boucicault.

Often buried far beneath the surface in this 2¾-hour presentation, An Octoroon is a slushy, 160-year-old, edge-of-the-seat melodrama of southern folk and their black slaves packed with thrills and spills, not to forget unlikely plotting.

In brief, an old established southern family has mortgaged the estate, complete with slaves. Its latest head, noble George, would love to save the day, not to mention marry his cousin, the octoroon of the title, Iona Evans as Zoe. Dastardly M’Closky literally wishes to buy the estate and enslave her, while acting as a traditional slaveholder torturing his chattels to maximise profits. Along the way, various deliberately clichéd slaves spend a lot of time insulting each other but do occasionally worry about their fate, while a rich lady who loves George has the wherewithal to see off M’Closky but at a cost.

The evening opens in a rather different style, with a 15-minute monologue delivered by Ken Nwosu in the guise of our modern playwright, Branden Jacob-Jenkins explaining the thought process behind his decision to rehash an old potboiler for the 21st-century market.

The remainder of the playing time is split relatively evenly between an increasingly eccentric but occasionally spectacular version of the Boucicault, often featuring sarcastic comments from characters about the play that they are delivering, and what can sometimes feel like a cross between a modern sitcom and pantomime mixed with a good dose of the kind of entertainment purveyed by the Black and White Minstrels. Finally, slotted into appropriate gaps, there is some reasonably incisive commentary about the nature of slavery and the black (and even occasionally Native American) predicament in the dark days of the mid-19th century.

This is the kind of production that will almost certainly divide opinions. Those who can buy into the comedy will have a lovely time. Others may believe that it intrudes unreasonably on a classic of its genre, not to mention adding about an hour to the running time.

Whatever anyone might think about the play itself, the central performance from Ken Nwosu, who not only plays BJJ but also both the goodie and the baddie, sometimes simultaneously, will live long in the memory. His energy levels are astonishing, particularly given the fact that this review is based on a performance on a two-show day.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher