In 1859 Irish playwright Dion Boucicault wrote The Octoroon, a melodrama about American slavery where a mixed-race woman is forbidden from marrying the white plantation owner.
Emmanuella Cole, Alistair Toovey in An Octoroon at the National Theatre
Inverting the uncomfortable history of 'black face', the cast don face-paint to play characters of different races. The black playwright character stars in his own production, switching between the gallant plantation owner and the villain with the help of wigs and and a chalky white face. Dion Boucicault (Kevin Trainor), original author of The Octoroon, also features as his inebriated self and as the red-faced Native American who functions as the play's scapegoat.
The brutal history of slavery is played out with cartoonish, over-the-top bravura. And the referential, meta-textual connection to Boucicault's 1859 text adds an extra layer of potency, as a black American writer re-works the legacy of his white predecessor.
Director Ned Bennett milks the melodrama to comic effect and ups the chaos with deliberately crude production, which shifts from lights-on understatement to sheer spectacle.
As comedy, the complex plot of a Victorian melodrama and contemporary political commentary combine keeping up with the tonal shifts is thrilling (and a little exhausting). But what's more impressive is how all the spectacle engages with a more cerebral, nuanced exploration of theatrical form.
|What||An Octoroon, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
07 Jun 18 – 18 Jul 18, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Price||£15 - £40|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|