Archive for June, 2017

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The Octoroon is an 1859 melodrama by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, set on a Louisiana plantation. Here we have An Octoroon, a modern re-working by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, first seen in New York. The rarely used word in both titles means one-eighth black.

It is doubtful if Jacobs-Jenkins would claim that either the original or his own version is a great piece of literature, but what he has created is an extraordinary work of theatre and Ned Bennett’s ferocious production quite literally tears into the foundations of the Orange Tree. Jacobs-Jenkins himself (played by Ken Nwosu) appears in his underwear for a prelude, introducing  a playwright (Kevin Trainor) who is developing a production based on Boucicault. Nwosu (a black actor) then paints his face white to alternate as two slave masters and Trainor (a white actor) paints his face red to play a native American. Another white actor, Alistair Toovey, blacks up to play a crippled old slave. Colour blind casting has become a norm in modern theatre, but this is colour altered casting.

While increasing the tone of melodrama, the greasepaint has a startling effect, aimed at unsettling a modern audience and, in unexpected ways, using ironic humour to challenge us into confronting lingering prejudices surrounding the abominations of slavery, racism and sexism. Bennett augments the tension with alarming stage effects, using this small in-the-round theatre as probably never before. A second act scene change (a stage change to be precise) halts the play as repeated variations in pace unsettle us further and encourage us to expect the unexpected.

In contrast to the parade of grotesques formed by the men, the women are all played conventionally. Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare are touching and sometimes funny as the slaves whose spirit survives their degradation, Celeste Dodwell is prissy as the wealthy young lady of the plantation and Iola Evans is sweetly romantic as the octoroon herself, white enough to fall for the heir to the plantation, but black enough to be denied her freedom. The company is completed by a cellist (James Douglas) and Clare appears at intervals as Br’er Rabbit to add a further dash of absurdism. Perhaps the play occasionally loses its way and feels too self-indulgent for its own good, but, for originality and dramatic effect, it scores top marks.

Performance date: 3 June 2017

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All that the Menier forgot to lay on here was the log fire, foot stools and carpet slippers. Otherwise, the cosiness is complete for a nostalgic wallow in theatre about as old-fashioned as it can get.  Robert Jones’ sumptuous sets establish the tone for the evening and a play that takes us into a world that no longer exists, if it ever did.

In the mid-80’s Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage appeared on Shaftesbury Avenue as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, with the late Margaret Tyzack as her sparring partner. Felicity Kendall and Maureen Lipman now step into their shoes and they fit comfortably. Shaffer’s central notion is that history is best appreciated when given added colour and not too weighed down by inconvenient facts. Well, the writer of Amadeus would argue that way, wouldn’t he? Lettice Douffet (Kendal) is a tour guide at a stately home, who, drawing on her theatrical background, revels in making up preposterous stories about the building for the enjoyment of her parties. Lotte Schoen (Lipman) is the stuffy administrator who fires her. The pair make up over several litres of Lettice’s “quaff” (a concoction of vodka, lovage and other things) and unite to re-enact famous executions from history. It has to be said that Lipman does sozzled particularly amusingly.

Shaffer’s secondary bugbear, the carbuncles that pass for modern architecture, is articulated by Schoen, who puts her head on the chopping block in the manner of Charles I, while sounding like his modern royal namesake. It is all very silly, but there is little to dislike about it, apart from the length – three (yes three!) acts – and there are times when the urge to shout at the stage “get on with it” becomes almost overpowering.  Trevor Nunn directs languidly, but, with these two formidable actors on stage, it seems possible that he would have had very little to do.

Performance date: 31 May 2017