Review: An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre or this is why I go to the theatre
The first thing I have to say is 'thanks' to @mildlybitter. I'd not heard of An Octoroon or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins but she recommended his play which is having its European premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and I'm so glad she did.
Jacobs-Jenkins has taken Dion Boucicault's 1850s play but made it a play within a play by putting both himself, played by Ken Nwosu, and Boucicault (Kevin Trainor) into the story. But more than that. They talk directly to the audience, argue with each other and also play several of the characters in the original play. It's brilliantly Brechtian, meta and, with a Bre'r-rabbit running around, surreal but I'll come on to all that.
In Boucicault's The Octoroon George (Nwosu) returns home to Louisiana from Paris to find Terrebonne, the plantation he has inherited is about to be repossessed. Local heiress Dora (Celeste Dodwell) fancies him and marriage to her could secure the plantation - and the slaves it keeps. But George has fallen for Zoe (Lola Evans) the illegitimate daughter of his uncle from his relationship with a slave who has been brought up as part of the family.
The villain of the piece is wealthy Jacob M'Closky (also played by Nwosu) who wants Zoe for himself despite her having spurned his advances. M'Closky intercepts a cheque which could save Terrebonne and also discovers something about Zoe's legal status which he decides to use to his advantage.
He slaps you in the face but it is also a play laced with subtlety. You can't help but react - whether it is laughter, a gasp, empathy or a feeling of suspense - but then neither can you help questioning your reactions. In its very essence, it is a play of extremes and contrasts. It is brutal and funny. It is playful, challenging, ridiculous and deadly serious. He points out the plot-holes of the original play and yet defies the same logic by giving us conversations between 19th and 21st-century playwrights. He gives us a metaphorical Bre'r rabbit, points out what is coming up and yet still surprises.
I could write thousands of words and still not feel like I was doing An Octoroon justice so I'll just say it is plays like this that remind me why I love going to the theatre and why I need to go to the theatre.
It's at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until June 24, it's 2 hours and 35 minutes long including an interval and I'm giving it five stars. Go and see it.
The Orange Tree's Literary Associate Guy Jones recorded a podcast with Branden Jacob-Jenkins which you can listen to here.
And Branden Jacob-Jenkins has another play coming to London. Gloria is playing at Hampstead Theatre - 15 June to 22 July - and I can't wait.