LYNNE WALSH is challenged and amused in turns by a play described as 'a political correctness time-bomb nightmare
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames
THIS 21st-century take on a Dion Boucicault 1859 melodrama about race, slavery and debt resonates with allusions — think Gone with the Wind crossed with Showboat as directed by David Lynch, with a hint of Donnie Darko thrown in for good measure.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bases this version, which gets its first outing in Britain after its 2014 US premiere, on Boucicault's The Octoroon — a racist descriptor for a person of one-eighth African descent. “A political correctness time bomb nightmare,” is how he's described the Irish dramatist's melodrama and that’s certainly in evidence here.
But our discomfort in seeing a black actor in white face and vice versa is somewhat undercut by an Irish character in red face playing an “Indian.” The latter is played for laughs, largely, by Kevin Trainor in a salvo of splenetic outbursts.
We’re lured into some ripe comedy, even slapstick, and a few overly poetic love scenes. But a depiction of lynching reminds us that a few hours in the theatre can never capture the easy brutality of life on a Southern plantation.
Perspectives and sympathies shift, as we yearn for the lovelorn “octoroon” Zoe (Iola Evans) to be “rescued” by the love of good man George (Ken Nwosu, whose energy electrifies the play).
Will she be redeemed by a stolen and recovered letter? It's the very stuff of melodrama. Either way, she is still to be appropriated — whether as slave or sweetheart, possession or wife.
The fate of Southern Belle Dora seems simpler, at first glance, with Celeste Dodwell riveting in a part way beyond the comic turn she clearly relishes.
This heiress is desperate to be loved. Choosing a man who chooses another, she rebuffs him when he needs her or, in fact, her money.
Her attempt to save Zoe strikes at our 21st-century sensibilities — one woman saving her rival from a brute’s clutches.
This piece is about theatre as much as anything and what, as audiences, we bring to it. The “fourth wall” barrier is more or less non-existent in the Orange Tree’s perfectly suited in-the-round stage and there's a commentary on the play while we’re absorbed in it.
There is a Brechtian intent at work — the audience must learn, even if the truth is uncomfortable.
So, if you favour a passive night out, slumping in your seat and sucking sweeties, best not to go.