Back to the future
Everything old is new again as these three productions explore the past, says Michael Billington
I’VE made no secret in these pages of my admiration for the work first of Sam Walters and, now, Paul Miller at the Orange Tree in Richmond, Greater London. However, even by its own high standards, the theatre’s current production of An Octoroon is audacious and eye-opening.
Its source is a melodrama by the pioneering Irish showman Dion Boucicault, written in 1859. Branden Jacobs-jenkins, a 32-yearold black American playwright, has now adapted it to explore attitudes to race in a way that’s as easy to enjoy as it is hard to explain.
Our first sight is of an actor, the magnificent Ken Nwosu, appearing in his underpants to represent the living dramatist called simply BJJ, who goes on to hilariously itemise the dilemma of a black writer whose every statement is mined for its racial significance. He is then confronted by a bombastic, drunken Boucicault, who suffers no such self-doubt.
Once this prologue is over, we’re transported to a Louisiana estate and the world of the original play. It turns out to be a classic mortgage melodrama in which George Peyton, the virtuous heir to the debt-ridden family plantation, is threatened by the villainous M’closky, who was its former overseer. To complicate matters further, George finds that, in order to save the estate, he has to sacrifice his love for Zoe, whose mixed racial inheritance gives the play its title.
What are we really watching? In one way, the play is a comment on the fictive pretence of theatre itself. Having appeared as BJJ, Mr Nwosu then puts on whiteface and assorted wigs to play both the upright George and the unscrupulous M’closky, even engaging in a riotous fight between the two characters. Similarly, Kevin Trainor as the bibulous Boucicault dons redface to play a Native American. Aside from emphasising the absurdity of ethnic impersonation, this highlights the genuine ambivalence of the original play, which was famous in 1859 for its anti-slavery message. At the same time, we are reminded that it perpetuated racial stereotypes that are still part of our consciousness.
Even if exhaustion sets in by the time we get to a precis of
Richmond offers the most adventurous piece of theatre in London
Boucicault’s sensational climax, Ned Bennett’s production is wildly inventive and Georgia Lowe’s design involves the literal deconstruction of the Orange Tree stage to turn it into a pit for auctioned slaves.
Alongside Mr Nwosu and Mr Trainor, there are fine performances from Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole as exploited cotton-pickers and from Iola Evans as the woman whose complex ancestry gives the play its title.
The play may be a bit too boisterous for some tastes, but it is uplifting to find leafy Richmond offering the most adventurous piece of theatre in London.
In a week of adaptations, another dialogue between a liv-
ing and a dead playwright can be found in Vice Versa at The Swan in Stratford-upon-avon, Warwickshire. This is described as a new comedy by Phil Porter, ‘lovingly ripped off’ from a Roman play by Plautus. Anyone who has ever enjoyed the Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum or the Frankie Howerd TV series Up Pompeii will know what to expect.
The plot is driven by a wily slave, here transformed into a woman called Dexter, who is trying to conceal from her militaristic master, Braggadocio, the fact that his mistress is carrying on with the boy next door. The only way she can do this is by pretending the mistress has an identical twin and, inevitably, there comes a moment when the two women supposedly meet. The parallels with An Octoroon are striking. Mr Porter both stays close to his source, a comedy called Miles Gloriosus, and adapts it to the modern age to stress female agency and the hunger for liberty. The fun, however, lies an an endless stream of double entendres that, at one point, requires Nicholas Day, as an elderly magistrate, to cry: ‘I can’t keep it up for ever.’
Janice Honeyman’s production has a suitably madcap quality, Sam Kenyon has written some catchy songs and there are spirited performances from Sophia Nomvete as a Dexter who is anything but sinister and from Felix Hayes as her puffed-up master. In an RSC season devoted to Rome, the show is a welcome reminder that the city was the mainspring of modern comedy.
Meanwhile, in Woyzeck at The Old Vic, we have yet another adaptation of a standard classic. In this case, Georg Büchner’s seminal naturalistic tragedy, left unfinished at his death in 1837, has been freely updated by Jack Thorne, who has
successfully translated Harry Potter to the stage.
The production has excited a lot of interest and attracted a young audience through the presence of John Boyega, Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as the titular hero. Mr Boyega has a real presence and captures excellently the disintegration of the workingclass Woyzeck, an illiterate soldier mercilessly exploited by his
superiors. I had doubts, however, about shifting the action to a divided Berlin in 1981 and both Mr Thorne’s text and Joe Murphy’s production sacrifice the elliptical beauty of Büchner’s original by providing too many explanations for the hero’s downfall.
Still, Mr Boyega clearly has a future—i now long to see him play Othello—and the evening proves, like the rest of the week’s shows, that theatre offers a genuine communion between past and present. ‘An Octoroon’ runs until June 24 (020–8940 3633); ‘Vice Versa’ until September 9 (01789 403493); ‘Woyzeck’ until June 24 (0844 871 7628)
Will John Boyega, now in Woyzcek at the Old Vic, attract a new generation of theatregoers?
Vice Versa is a surprising addition to the RSC’S ‘Rome’ season
Racial stereotyping isn’t all black and white in An Octoroon