Thursday, 23 December 2021

Radio review: The Octoroon

So I guess I'm rounding out 2021 in the same way I started it, making up for a lack of live theatre with screen and radio alternatives. A few years ago American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins scored a hit with An Octoroon, his deconstruction of problematic Victorian melodrama The Octoroon. The play worked in its own right but like, I would imagine, most people, I went into it unfamiliar with what it was deconstructing. It's one thing when the source material is Hamlet, but when it's a play whose then-radical sympathy for black lives now comes across as deeply patronising, it's not exactly revived much. So once again Radio 3 provides an alternative, with a 2013 production in which Mark Ravenhill adapted Dion Boucicault's 1859 play set on a Louisiana cotton plantation, where George (Trevor White) has returned to claim his inheritance.

But through a combination of incompetence and deliberate mismanagement he finds it mortgaged to the hilt, and about to be reposessed. There's a hope that a huge debt is about to be repaid that could save the estate, but the malicious Jacob M'Closky (Steven Hartley) has plans of his own, and is willing to commit murder to intercept the letter confirming the payment. Where, writing just before the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Boucicault nails his colours to the mast, is that the crux of the drama isn't in the loss of the land, but in the fact that the liquidation will include the sale of the slaves who've lived there all their lives. He foregrounds this even more by making the titular heroine Zoe (Amaka Okafor) one-eighth black, the illegitimate daughter of George's late uncle with one of his slaves. She's the real target of the villainous M'Closky, and the slavery laws provide both the obstacle to her and George getting together, and the peril when it transpires a loophole may mean she was never technically freed.

Another reason it's interesting to listen to this right now is that having recently seen Trouble in Mind, this offers an example of the kind of well-meaning but clumsily offensive "race play" Alice Childress was responding to nearly a century later. The slaves Pete and Paul (David Webber and John MacMillan) are sympathetic characters but very broad stereotypes, while the least said about the drunk Native American (Earl Kim) the better. The climax requires Salem Scudder (Toby Jones) to take on a White Saviour role, but arguably the fact that the law so disenfranchises the black characters that a white saviour is needed in the first place, is part of the point. There's also, in all the melodrama and daft extremes, a quite brutally simply presented scene of a family being broken up by a slave auction. You can see from the play itself, why Jacobs-Jenkins' version found respect for Boucicault's intentions even as it tore apart the method in which he presented them. Although the fact that the eventual force for justice is a lynch mob is... yeah, I've got nothing.

That being said, this production wasn't just presented as a lesson on the history of theatre and race, but as an entertainment, and with Victorian Melodrama never (yet?) having come back into favour, Sasha Yevtushenko's production takes the same approach as the fun 2019 revival of After Dark, keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek: The performances go broad, and the music by perennial Radio 4 punchline Colin Sell provides frantic accompaniment. It was recorded in front of a live audience at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, who are encouraged to get into the spirit and cheer the heroes, and boo and hiss the villain. You can also see a link with that later play (and one of the ways Boucicault maintained his blockbuster status) in the way the latest technology plays a crucial role in the dénouement - this time it's one of those new-fangled photography cameras that provides a crucial twist. Can The Octoroon be presented today without a whole framework of disclaimers? Probably not (even the title is problematic,) but something of the popular entertainment that Boucicault was the master of for so long remains.

The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault, adapted by Mark Ravenhill, is available on BBC Sounds.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

Image credit: BBC.

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