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20 June 2018updated 21 Jun 2018 10:43am

The National Theatre’s An Octoroon is a challenging take on American race relations

It’s an astonishing play; if only the production weren’t turned up to 11 throughout.

By Helen Lewis

An Octoroon is an exhausting play. It requires its three male actors to play three parts each, switching between them at breakneck speed, sometimes within the same scene. For the audience, it’s a full-scale assault on the senses. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise: the director Ned Bennett’s previous play, Buggy Baby – at the tiny, trendy Yard Theatre in Hackney earlier this year – featured balloons, glitter cannons, terrifying men dressed as rabbits and an adult actor playing a toddler.

This time, the balloons are back, as is the rabbit motif. We also get ticker tape, fake money, puppetry, projections, strobe lighting and a dizzying narrative that switches between an 1859 play called The Octoroon (someone who is one-eighth black) and a modern black playwright’s attempt to rewrite it. Oh, one more thing. They SET THE STAGE ON FIRE. This is not a metaphor. Petrol. A lighter. Flames.

The question, inevitably, is whether all this spectacle serves the story, or artificially plumps it out. The US playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s aims feel complicated. Any dialogue with the original Octoroon, which is full of racial slurs and crude stereotypes, is inevitably fraught. Its plot is deliberately melodramatic: George, a handsome young white man, arrives back from Paris to his dead uncle’s American plantation, and falls in love with the man’s illegitimate daughter. Zoe looks white, but we discover she’s the daughter of his slave, and thanks to some complicated financial shenanigans, her free papers are invalid. The evil M’Closky has driven the estate to bankruptcy – but if it is sold, Zoe counts as property, too. (M’Closky also murders a young slave boy and pins it on a local Native American drunk, Wahnotee.)

The drama is introduced with a monologue by “BJJ”, who then whites up in front of us to play the plantation owner and M’Closky; a white actor “reds up” for the 1859 author, a swaggering Irishman called Dion Boucicault, plus Wahnotee and a (sunburned) white lawyer. Another actor blacks up to play the remaining male parts, including the golliwoggish young slave boy and an Uncle Tom figure, Pete. This last character berates the other black characters as “lazy” in a way that pathetically asserts that he has merely been misclassified, rather than damning the system of racial classification. The text also dares the audience – or perhaps just its white members? – to have more sympathy for white-passing Zoe than for her fellow slaves, whom we read instantly as black.

Are you lost yet? If so, that’s half the point. The face paint and silly props (a moustache on a headband, a ponytail attached to a hat) show how superficial our markers of identity are, and yet how much weight we attach to them. Race might be a social construct, but it spawned a system of classification that presumed to rule on an individual’s basic humanity. I took this magazine’s special correspondent, Stephen Bush, to the performance: he emerged from some intensive interval googling to report that in some US states, the original Octoroon ended with Zoe and George’s marriage. In others, anti-miscegenation laws made a happy ending impossible. The fragile boundaries of whiteness needed such enforcement that a single black great-grandparent was deemed to taint your blood, even when your skin was pale.

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This play’s racial politics are specifically American, and some of its subtleties (and resulting guilt) will therefore bypass a British audience. My second caveat is that the overwhelming spectacle doesn’t give you time to feel much. The scene where BJJ and Boucicault scream “fuck you” at each other for 30 seconds is borderline student theatre, as is the stage direction where BJJ, wearing only socks and underpants, gives himself “an incredibly powerful wedgie”.

More troublingly, turning off all the lights and snapping them back on with a freaky rabbit-headed monster in the audience might be terrifying (there were real screams) but it diminishes the impact of a photograph of a lynching projected on to a huge, white sheet. Still, An Octoroon is an astonishing, challenging play; if only the production weren’t turned up to 11 throughout.

The Almeida in Islington, meanwhile, continues its unofficial Highly Strung Women season with a reworking of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal, about a young woman who feels so suffocated by her marriage to a pompous bore that she clocks him over the head. There are some beautiful visual flourishes – such as an angled mirror over the claustrophically small stage area – but Emily Berrington’s central performance is not strong enough to carry the spare, unflinching narrative.

Save your money instead for the West End transfer of Summer and Smoke, a rarely performed Tennessee Williams script where Patsy Ferran embodies neurosis so  perfectly you’ll feel faintly panicked for hours afterwards. Or cross your fingers for a West End transfer of the Donmar’s Miss Jean Brodie (day seats only), built around a central performance so good that Lia Williams must already be reserving space in her downstairs loo for an Olivier Award. 

An Octoroon
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
National Theatre, London SE1

This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis