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An Octoroon

Review - An Octoroon at the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

You can't help but admire the sheer theatricality, verve and bravado of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins dense riff on race and the theatre itself that makes up An Octoroon. It's playful, daring and surprising, all at once; no wonder it made it onto more than one critics' end-of-2017 lists for the best play of the year after its premiere at Richmond's Orange Tree last year. (For my money, though, it was a second play by the same young American playwright Gloria, seen at Hampstead Theatre, that deserved a place on that list).

But at the same time, I'm inclined to agree with my colleague Fiona Mountford, who reviewing its original Richmond run in the Evening Standard, cautioned: "A warning: I have never before experienced such palpable levels of audience bewilderment."

Based on a virtually unknown 1859 "mortgage melodrama" by Dion Boucicault, it appropriates its plot as the basis of an exploration of race, slavery and servitude, all mixed in with a lot of meta-theatricality.  It revolves around a story of a Louisiana plantation that's threatened with falling into the wrong hands unless its slave-owning landlord George Payton marries a rich heiress instead of Zoe (the Octoroon of the title - namely, a woman who has one-eighth black ancestry).

Like many a restoration comedy, it can feel pretty tangled and convoluted; but the cleverness and delight of Branden-Jacobs's play - and rising star Ned Bennett's direction - is its playfulness with form, as actors play against their own race (black actors white up; white actors black up or even red up to play native Americans).

As fire engulfs the entire understage of the Dorfman's theatrical floor, the show is combustible in every sense; and it shows the Orange Tree - unfunded since losing its Arts Council grant - punching way above its weight to offer one of London's most audacious new plays.

An Octoroon is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 18th July.

Photo credit Helen Murray

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