Wednesday, 19 July 2017

An Octoroon

An Octoroon
Orange Tree Theatre 

An Octoroon, Branden Jacob-Jenkins meta-theatrical adaptation of Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, has found an astonishingly rich production by Ned Bennett at Orange Tree Theatre, quite possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. 

It begins with a provocation. The character BJJ, alone on stage in his underwear, talking about therapy. A skilful pause is left between “who cares about white people… says my therapist”. Then Snoop Dogg’s Step Yo Game Up blares out and BJJ meticulously whites up, ready to play the dual roles of the hero George and the villain M’Closky. Shortly after, the 'Playwright' Dion Boucicault himself appears onstage, drunkenly insults the audience, then ‘reds up’ to play Native American character Wahnotee. By the time the first blacked up actor arrives onstage, the layers of performativity are well embedded.

We then rattle through the story of The Octoroon – in which George falls for the lovely Zoe, who’s also being pursued by the wretched M’Closky, a local landowner who happens to know the secret of Zoe’s one eighth black heritage. The plot is classic melodrama, complete with ‘colourful’ plantation slaves Minnie, Dido and Peter, an intercepted letter, the murder of young slave Paul, the attempted lynching of Wahnotee for said crime, and the eventual downfall of the true culprit M’Closky. Boucicault’s original script is blended with Jacob-Jenkins’ additions, with the cast maximising some of more The Octoroon’s more excessive tropes through their exaggerated acting. And what a cast it is. Ken Nwosu gives an astonishing central performance as BJJ/George/M’Closky, Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole are note perfect as Minnie and Dido, and Alistair Toovey delivers a brilliantly physical and versatile performance as Pete and Paul. There’s not a weak link among them and they commit to every single second onstage. 

Towards the end of Act Three, the cast dismantle the set to create a slave market, unhurriedly pulling up the boards of the stage in silence as we watch. Then Act Four begins with a deconstruction of the melodrama form itself, with BJJ and the Playwright explaining how Act Four needs to function, and then going on to describe the attempted lynching scene themselves, with the rest of the cast chipping in from the dress circle. Finally, The Octoroon plot wraps up and the beautiful final scene is of Minnie and Dido talking quietly to each other about how life works.

There are enough layers in the production as a whole to merit an 8000 word review and I’m sure I didn’t spot all of them. There’s the surface layer of any production that interrogates one text through another. Then of a black playwright interrogating a white playwright, through a source material focused on and built around race. Then the staging of blackness and whiteness and the specific materials of that staging, the props and the costumes, the accents and the physicality. And then there’s the layer of An Octoroon’s own relationship with the wider theatrical contexts. 

Part of Jacob-Jenkins’ argument is on marking out a place in the predominantly white canon of Western drama and the complex emotions about his plays being automatically categorised as explorations of the African American experience. “I’m not fucking deconstructing any fucking African fucking folktales!” BJJ spits at one point in response to an analysis of his play about farmyard animals - though Bre’er Rabbit does make several cameos in An Octoroon. (These same intricacies are explored from a literary perspective in Percival Everett’s brilliant Erasure, which features a similarly protracted ‘Fuck you’/‘Fuck you’ dialogue to the one that BJJ and Playwright indulge in early on).

These are big meaty topics but An Octoroon is never overly worthy. In fact, it’s extremely funny, mixing razor sharp one liners with OTT physical comedy, and a breakneck confrontation scene between George and M’Closky, with Nwosu hilariously switching between each character. Yet there are moments, particularly in the scenes between Minnie and Dido, where the substance of what we’re laughing at becomes a bit blurred. Salome Wagaine wrote an excellent review expressing her discomfort at how the production plays to a white audience, and cited how “the laughter at the suggestion Minnie is ‘ghetto’ came a little bit too easily”. I did feel a sense in those scenes that, like Dave Chappelle’s worry that white laughter at his show was for stereotypes being reinforced rather than subverted, it’s hard to pinpoint what the laughter is aimed at. 

Provoking thoughts like these is quite possibly exactly what Jacob-Jenkins wants. His play is not a comfortable watch, nor should it be. The n word is tossed back and forth. A white man performs a kind of frenzied fancy dance with red face paint on. Pete shucks and jives like a character from a minstrel show. But comfort is all too easily found in the theatre. This play is a gut punch, with a message not to be forgotten.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017


Almeida Theatre

I acquired a Hamlet ticket by fluke, an off chance return popping up on the website one afternoon. It turned out to be the middle seat on the front row, at several times close enough to reach out and touch the actors in mid-flow.

Sadly, that sort of thing is frowned upon and I didn’t fancy risking expulsion from the most compelling Shakespeare I’d seen in years. Icke has stripped back the play to its most comprehensible form, the language clean and direct. Certain plot elements have been stripped back too – the politics feature so sparsely I’d have struggled to explain who Fortinbras was if I was a first timer. It doesn’t matter much though; it’s a human story, this Hamlet. Two families, torn apart by grief. A quieter, more nakedly emotional production than perhaps is usual.

And Andrew Scott is just the actor for emotional. Never far from tears, his Hamlet is less a man feigning madness and more a son succumbing to a very real depression at the loss of his father. He wields guilt like a weapon; reducing Gertrude, Guildenstern and even eventually Laertes to abject shame at their betrayal of him. Juliet Stephenson is a wonderful Gertrude too – a lively, life-filled woman who has a sensual desire for her husband and an aching concern for her fragile son.

They’re the two lynchpins that the production turns around, although the rest of the cast hardly need any bolstering. Angus Wright, who was so fuddily diffident in Katie Mitchell’s Cherry Orchard and so powerfully menacing in Icke’s Oresteia, is on fine form here. His Claudius is of the latter persuasion, a man of power and dignity, his voice so smooth and sonorous you might almost believe he’s innocent of his crimes. Peter Wight is an excellent Polonius – I loved the hints that an encroaching illness lies behind his meandering speech – an illness which Ophelia alone seems to notice and perhaps provides an explanation for how closely she dotes upon him and bends to his will. Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern is great too – a past lover of Hamlet who seems quietly devastated by his descent into madness.

Still, Ophelia doesn’t work for me. Ophelia never works for me. Why is that? Something about the compressed time frame of her madness, two short scenes and then an offstage death. Something about Findlay-Brown’s clear sightedness in the earlier scenes, which makes her total collapse harder to reconcile. Something about the beautiful clarity of her singing voice, even in the throes of despair. Ophelia is difficult. She’s underwritten, she lacks agency, she falls apart so fast. I want her to survive every time I see this play and she never does.

I saw ghosts of Almeida productions past in Hamlet. The half-screened stage and upstage bath were used to great effect in the Oresteia (they share the same talented designer Hildegard Bechtler). Dylan’s croons haunt Hamlet like God Only Knows haunted the Oresteia (we heard Dylan in Icke’s 2016 Uncle Vanya too). And the final incredibly moving moments as the party of the dead are revealed upstage reminded me of the similarly heart-rending ending of David Cromer’s Our Town.

The gravedigger scene is lovely and also horrifying, in that its quiet contemplation of the legacy we leave behind hit me like a ton of bricks. I was suddenly filled with a sense of queasy panic that a man of perhaps only 30 (Scott is 40 but easily passes for younger) was about to walk to his death.

I’d have shouted at the stage if I could but Hamlet, like Ophelia, is always going to do what he’s going to do. It’s a testament to this production that I came close to shouting anyway; that Shakespeare's characters seemed, for a second or two, close enough to reach out and touch.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Killer/The Pitchfork Disney

Killer / The Pitchfork Disney
Shoreditch Town Hall

At the start of Killer you are issued with a pair of headphones and then all the lights go out. Later there are flashlights, torches, glowing orbs, but you spend that first monologue alone in the dark, John Macmillan’s voice your sole point of focus.

Jamie Lloyd uses binaural sound to stage Philip Ridley's monologue trio, which gives the uncanny feeling at times that the narrator is whispering directly in your ear. It’s especially effective for the first monologue, in which a self-help public speaker breaks off from his usual spiel to confide the horrifying story of a teenage gang initiation. Macmillan’s skill is such that I found myself jumping and twitching in my seat whenever his voice dropped low; completely convinced that he was standing right beside me, that I could feel his breath on my shoulder.

I saw the first and third monologue in shorter form at a post-show event for The Fastest Clock in the Universe a few years ago. The first is intensely effective, but the story feels unfinished. The last is a flight of fancy in which a man witnessing a crime imagines a new life as a relocated witness with a magical ostrich that works miracles. It’s a jittery treat, packed with images both comical and queasy (I’d say in general this is not a show for animal lovers, or in fact lovers of foie gras who’d rather not dwell on the process of cultivation), but the second monologue was my favourite. A fussy companion for an elderly lady recounts a life of order and precision in a small suburb, where human emotion is never allowed to disturb propriety. Then a trip to the graveyard turns into a violent, 28 Days Later style nightmare, for which the narrator seems uniquely equipped. It reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s short story Mary Postgate – the bland narrative tone a sharp contrast to the violence within.

Lloyd’s new production of The Pitchfork Disney is equally aware of the fine line between civilisation and violence. Adult siblings Presley and Haley sit alone in their run down East End house; gorging on chocolate, recounting their dreams, and hiding from the outside world. Then a pretty stranger shows up at the door and Presley can’t help but invite him in…

Ridley has described this play as a ‘tuning fork’, reflecting whatever the contemporary anxieties of the age are. In post-Trump and Brexit 2017, it might be that the siblings’ paralysing fear of the outside world seems entirely sensible. But I didn’t sense an overarching political message from the production, which was fine. Ridley’s twisted prose and pitch black wit can more than stand for themselves. He has an artist’s eye for imagery and a keen grasp on how we are drawn to that which should repel us. Cosmo’s party trick of eating live cockroaches may be disgusting - but none of us looked away.

Hayley Squires is sympathetic as a palpably damaged Haley and George Blagden is robust as her enabling brother. I saw the Arcola’s revival of Pitchfork in 2012 and Chris New suggested more of the child in Presley, his voice a nasally whine as he bickered with his sister, inflamed with an infant’s sense of injustice. But Blagden delivers the epic-length serial killer monologue with aplomb, and gives a grisly relish to the famous sizzling snake memory.

Tom Rhys Harries is a slick, casually cruel Cosmo; his pale face flickering in the dim lamplight. Seun Shote is also a memorably hyperactive Pitchfork, bounding across the floor in great strides, like an overgrown child. Perched on stools and benches, we’re an uneasy witness to the grotesque and the charming, to the pleasure of fear and the pity of it.

Friday, 3 March 2017


Almeida Theatre

Oil is a whistle-stop tour from 19th century Cornwall to 2051 post-oil England, stopping off at 1908 Tehran, 1970s Hampstead, and near future Baghdad on the way. It’s also a look at the relationship between feminism and the energy industry we all depend upon, even if we’d rather turn a blind eye to its uglier truths.

Oil starts with a pregnant May, irritated by her smothering family but passionately devoted to her husband, being introduced to the wonders of oil lighting by a Texan cowboy. It’s this catalyst that causes her to forge out alone, sensing something bigger out there in the darkness. With child Amy in tow, she moves through time and space, the fraught history of oil as her backdrop.

Anne Marie Duff is stunning as May, determined to step into the future, no matter how uncertain. She’s a winner and a victim and a bully and a crook, and above all that she’s fierce in her longing for something more. Duff is so good at switching between heart-breaking vulnerability and calculated cruelness at the drop of a hat. She’s eminently watchable in every era, a twisted everywoman for our twisted times. Yolanda Kettle is also strong as her principled daughter and Tom Mothersdale (or The Terrifying Tom Mothersdale, as I have been referring to him since his turn as Tinker in 2016’s Cleansed) is earthily sensual as May’s abandoned lover, reappearing at a critical point to remind her of what she sacrificed.

Not everything works. Amy as a naïve traveller in war ravaged Iraq is meant to be cringeworthily gauche – but the scene adds nothing to the narrative. But the highs outweigh the lows, and the show’s not short on laughs either. The 1970s scene might be my favourite. Here Duff is a spiky oil exec, who lasers idealistic Amy’s dopey boyfriend with a few choice words. She’s brutal, mercenary, capitalistic, and also still achingly full of love for her child.

It ends with the inevitable. Oil is gone and a new futuristic energy is on the rise. Amy must go and forge her own future, and May has to be left behind. And then the Texan cowboy from the beginning shows up. Carefully, joyfully, they dance together to Justin Bieber’s passive aggressive anthem Love Yourself. It’s a lovely, sad ending; reminding us that everything we have now will be a relic one day, including oil, including ourselves.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Another Country

Another Country 
Trafalgar Studios

The play that purportedly made stars out of Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country is an interpretation of the reasons Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five might have chosen to spy for the Russians against the British in the 1940s and 50s. It follows Bennett, a gay pupil at a prestigious boarding school, and his classmate Judd, a proto-communist who makes clear his disgust for the rigidly enforced class system around him.

There’s plenty of interest in the subject matter of the play, but in this production there’s just too much talking and not enough action. The extremely static direction doesn’t help; characters often remaining seated and inert throughout entire scenes. With long, vaguely philosophical debates about society and class dominating much of the stage time; Another Country occasionally resembles a university seminar rather than a play, particularly when Judd is waxing lyrical about his fervent belief in the communist system. Judd himself is a supremely irritating character; given to constant impromptu lectures about politic reform and class division. We’re intended to see the other boys’ dismissal of him as symptomatic of their uncaring class superiority; but I have some sympathy with their annoyance at his self-righteous hectoring. 

The second half is better than the first; there’s more movement, and a lively scene in which Bennett talks his way out of corporal punishment is energetically executed. Bennett’s final breakdown is also a well done moment – movingly depicted by Rob Callender. In fact, Callender’s performance is one of the main strengths of the production; he is by turn sly, camp, irreverent and affectionate. His artful observations provide much of the humour of the play; and his emotional journey is the empathetic centre of the piece.

I find Mitchell’s conclusion – that the Cambridge Five might have defected to Russia to enact personal vengeance – a shaky one. Bennett’s total lack of interest in politics throughout the play make his last minute conversion to Judd’s proselytising very unconvincing indeed. There may be an argument to be made that frustration with the implacable British class system was a catalyst for Guy Burgess’ betrayal, but the Bennett we see in Another County doesn’t fit the profile of a political extremist. Ultimately, his burgeoning sexuality and struggle for self-acceptance prove to be a more compelling narrative focus than the political aspects of the piece.


Royal Court

Birdland – named not for Charlie Parker’s jazz club but for Patti Smith’s song of the same name – tells the story of Paul, a working class lad who has found international fame as a rock star, but is slowly coming apart at the seams. The play tracks a series of encounters between him and his manager, his fans, an interviewer, a love interest, a police officer and his own father. By the end of the play, his charmed life has unravelled around him and his reputation lies in tatters.

Birdland boasts a star performance from Andrew Scott, an effectively utilised set, and some snappy direction. The problem lies with the narrative. Paul’s journey wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood biopic: the humble beginnings, the meteoric rise to fame, the developing hubris, the point of crisis, the inexorable decline. Birdland fits this ‘VH1: Behind the Music’ genre to a t; right down to the awkward conversation with the estranged father right at the end. The plot borders on cliché, which is not something you can usually accuse Simon Stephens of, and it makes it harder to engage with what feels like an overly familiar story.

It could be argued that the narrative isn’t the point, but unfortunately Birdland offers little compensation in other areas. The dialogue is sometimes sharp, sometimes amusing, but never clever or compelling enough to distract from the creaking plot. The set and costumes are visually interesting, and I liked the black water that eventually swallowed up the ground beneath them, but it was a bit late to capture my interest by then. 

The acting is good however, particularly from Andrew Scott as Paul. He has a magnetic quality that holds the audience’s sympathies, even as he descends further into entropy. There are also several interesting contradictions in his character that the play sadly never explores. For example, why is he so keen to tell his manager that he seduced his girlfriend Marnie? Is he completely lacking in empathy? Is he trying to get one over on his friend? Or is he simply craving attention in any form? We never know because the plot eschews further development of this point, even though his decision to announce this plan to Marnie is the catalyst for her suicide and thus the entire narrative that follows.

Rock and roll will always be an interesting topic for the stage, and Birdland is certainly not a disaster. But it’s not as good as it could be. Simon Stephens often incorporates his love of music into his writing, and I hope that he might return to this particular theme one day with a slightly more unpredictable take on it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014


The Shed (NT)

Vivienne, a senior politician, and her family are staying in an opulent hotel on a secluded Kenyan island. It’s a last ditch attempt to repair the damage done by husband Robert’s recent and well publicised infidelity. Meanwhile teenagers Ralph and Frankie are keeping secrets of their own. But their problems fade into insignificance when hotel staff members Nala and Abdi take them hostage for terrifying purposes of their own. 

Polly Stenham's new thriller Hotel has been receiving mixed reviews all over the shop; with several critics praising her ambition but criticising her plotting. But I felt there was something more troubling afoot in the piece than structural inconsistencies.  Before I discuss that, I do want to note that there are parts of Hotel that are good. Both Susan Wokoma and Tom Rhys Harries give committed performances as the fiery Nala and the damaged Ralph respectively. There’s interest to be had in the early scene in which Ralph painfully confesses that he was the one to lure his father into the honey trap that destroyed their family. There are also several witty lines, the acting is generally good, and the set is beautifully and artfully constructed.

However. There are ways in which race is represented in Hotel that seem problematic to me.

The most uncomfortable scene comes in the second half of the drama. After Nala and Abdi have tied up the family and Nala has explained her rage against the UK government’s exploitation of Kenya, she seems to be about to set Vivienne and Robert on fire. Then suddenly four or five heavily armed young black men run onto the stage and proceed to destroy the set and kidnap Vivienne and Robert; in the process shooting Abdi dead and wounding Nala.

The discomfort comes from the fact that these young men (later revealed to be Somalian pirates) simply crowd the stage, violently wreck it, and then vanish. We have no insight into their motives or backstory; it’s not even clear what the alluded to deal that they struck with Nala is.

Which in one sense is fine – plays don’t have to explain every last detail; and it’s okay to use characters for a brief scene to advance the plot. But in another sense, having a group of nameless black men jump onstage, wreak violent havoc, and then disappear is deeply problematic. In a country where non-white representation onstage is far too sparse to begin with, utilising black actors only to enact a brief scene of rage and destruction sits uncomfortably. They don’t signify anything other than chaotic violence and horror – which is uneasily close to the current public perception of all Somalians (and to some extent, vilified black men in society in general).

Perhaps Stenham is aware of this and is making an ironic point by reflecting our own prejudices back at us. If that’s the case, I’m not sure it comes across strongly enough.  Especially given that the only black male character with lines is Abdi: who wields a huge gun, is on crack, and at one point casts voodoo against the hostage family - coming across as the archetypal 'Other'. If he’s an ironic representation of white prejudice, the meaning is somewhat lost, especially when he dies a sudden and pointless death on the arrival of the ‘pirates’. 

Similarly, why Somalians? Nala is Kenyan but Abdi is Somalian, as are the young men who burst onstage. Whilst Nala’s ire is directed at all post-colonial activity, she specifically focuses on how Vivienne’s actions have impacted Kenya. So are the other characters Somalian simply because the current political situation there is less stable than in Kenya? Is it just geographical proximity? Or is this another awkward case of Africa being treated as one homogenous nation with identical perceptions and experiences of colonialism?

American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks writes in her essay An Equation For Black People Onstage: “Can a White person be present onstage not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed?” Hotel falls into this trap of oppressor/oppressed by oversimplifying the power relationships onstage. Nala first appears as a maid, seemingly the ‘lower status’ individual in her interaction with Ralph; forced to listen to his tedious musings on the sunset. But when she returns, it’s to physically overpower him and take his family hostage. Then, after the pirates come, Ralph’s back in control; with the power to first tend to her gunshot wound, and then ferociously kick her until she bleeds. 

Stenham seems to allude to cycles of violence, and the colonial tendency to deny and cover up mistakes – as referenced by Frankie’s final suggestion that they simply kill Nala, as “no-one would know”. But the narrative falls foul of enacting the oppression it condemns. It denies the black characters a proper agency – and even Nala, the most three dimensional of them all, is inconsistently drawn. Her self-conscious speechifying about the amorality of UK foreign policy fails to convince; and we never hear the full backstory on her upbringing in London. There’s the start of an interesting exchange after Abdi dies; when Ralph points out that Nala used him for their own ends in the same way the British government used Kenya. It’s a tantalising allusion to the more complicated dialectic on the intersections of race, class and oppression that unfortunately Hotel largely forgoes – and the exchange leads nowhere.

Also, the causal link between the two halves of the play is weak. The only connection I could find was the fact that Robert’s apologies for his infidelities were as meaningless as Vivienne’s apologies for the violence enacted on Kenya by the UK government. If, like in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, the conflict of the first half is meant to be a microcosm of the violence of the second, it doesn’t quite work. The breakdown of the family unit just doesn’t seem comparable to the colonial oppression of a nation, and if the link is the futility of saying sorry, it isn’t followed through.  

Just to be clear, this review is not about lambasting Stenham or calling her a racist. There’s been an unpleasant tendency to bash Stenham since she first appeared on the scene – as  an upper class, out of touch playwright who gets more opportunities than she deserves – a tendency which is not only bitter, but also carries the undeniable whiff of misogyny. She’s not a bad playwright. There is talent on display in Hotel; it’s just that the racial politics are ultimately problematic to my mind. I'm all for plays engaging in post-colonialism, but care needs to be taken to ensure they don't end up colluding in the stereotyping that they seek to oppose.