Review - An Octoroon at the National Theatre
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.
Photo credit Helen Murray