Back to the fu­ture

Ev­ery­thing old is new again as these three pro­duc­tions ex­plore the past, says Michael Billing­ton

Country Life Every Week - - Theatre -

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

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