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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Nwosu’

This is one of the most audacious flights of theatrical imagination I’ve ever seen. Young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins arrives on these shores with a big bang. I can’t wait for his next play, which fortunately won’t be long as its coming up at Hampstead Theatre before this one even ends.

An Octoroon is someone who is one-eighth black, in this case Zoe, daughter of the plantation owner’s uncle and a slave, who lives on the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana. Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault wrote the original play in the mid nineteenth century and Jacobs-Jenkins has given it an extraordinary contemporary spin, which starts with a prologue from an actor playing Jacobs-Jenkins, who is then joined by one playing Boucicault. It’s some twenty minutes before we start the play itself, a cocktail of contemporary and period drama which almost defies description, faithful to the original but critiquing its treatment of race.

The Terrebonne plantation is bankrupt and both the property and the slaves have to be put up for sale. Southern Belle Dora has designs on George, the heir of the plantation, but he’s smitten with Zoe. Marrying Dora would save the plantation, marrying Zoe would be illegal. Neighbour M’Closky is our baddie; he’s killed slave Paul to intercept a letter which would also save the plantation and ensures Zoe is up for sale as a slave so that he can buy her. Br’er Rabbit makes a few appearances, but I’m not sure why. Both Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays have a tragic ending, but when Boucicault transferred his to London it was apparently changed to a happy one.

Ken Nwosu is terrific as Jacobs-Jenkins and as both George and M’Closky in white-face. Kevin Trainor is excellent too as Boucicault and as Indian Wahnotee in red-face, auctioneer Lafouche and the voice of ship-owner Ratts, who is played by a dressmaker’s dummy! Alistair Toovey in black-face also shines in very athletic performances as two slaves.  The five ladies – Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole, Cassie Clare, Celeste Dodwell and Iola Evans – are all superb. Ned Bennett’s production is like theatrical fireworks, energetic, surprising, and highly inventive.

A highly original piece that anyone interested in contemporary drama should catch.

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I was a bit shocked when I walked into the Olivier to find the stage laid out as a cramped modern office. As You Like It?! I still wasn’t convinced during the first few scenes, but from the moment Lizzie Clachan’s extraordinary design transformed the stage to an impressionistic Forest of Arden, I was captivated. I’m still not sure why we start in the offices of the de Bois family business (some sort of trading floor with staff in different uniforms suggesting different roles) but the rest of the play made perfect sense.

The key to the success of the production is the combination the Clachan’s design, Orlando Gough’s music & Carolyn Downing’s sound effects, the human sheep in Arran jumpers and superb casting and staging by Polly Findlay. It might not look like any forest you’ve ever walked through, but it feels like a magical one. People (and sheep!) weave in and out to play out scenes, seeming to appear from nowhere. The music is gorgeous, particularly the songs sung beautifully by Fra Fee and the atmospheric, wordless choruses. The sound of animals, birds and weather conditions are all-pervading. The verse speaking is outstanding and the gentle amplification (necessary given the soundscape) means you hear every word. The play has never felt more other-worldly or magical.

Ellie Kirk, covering Celia for Patsy Ferran, was terrific; word perfect and confident in such a big role. Rosalie Craig is a brilliantly boyish Rosalind / Ganymede and has great chemistry with Joe Bannister’s excellent Orlando. There’s luxury casting in the smaller roles, from Patrick Godfrey’s loyal Adam through Mark Benton’s particularly funny Touchstone, Alan Williams wise old shepherd Corin and Ken Nwosu’s charming young shepherd Silvius, to Paul Chahidi’s introspective Jaques.

This production appears to have divided people, but I thought it was one of the best I’ve seen.

 

 

 

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