Tom Sutcliffe enjoys plays which raise issues of race and ‘political correctness’


When my wife Meredith Oakes and I each played the role of Malvolio in school productions of Twelfth Night in Sydney and Hurstpierpoint, we were both presenting a character who was indubitably male. You would not ask a trumpeter to perform a violin concerto, even though the instruments have similar pitch ranges. I have not seen the current National Theatre Twelfth Night, which I gather sticks to Shakespeare’s words for the actress playing a role now called Malvolia – a woman in the story, not a man. There are complaints of too few female and black roles in Shakespeare and in the rep generally. Dear reader, you know what I mean.

Should actors’ skin colour and gender be a factor in casting? Nobody is being asked to get castrated to sing castrato roles, but mezzos and countertenors are grateful that there is no natural authentic competition. For Keith Warner’s new Otello staging at Covent Garden this month, Gregory Kunde and Jonas Kaufmann, powerful white tenor voices, alternate in the title role. Is skin colour important in Verdi’s opera or Shakespeare’s tragedy? Is it offensive for a performer to use make-up to seem duskier-skinned? Is the tragedy about a black man’s insecurity and jealousy, or about being an outsider? Should Shylock be performed by a real Jew? Moors might be just ‘a little tanned’ – a popular jocular phrase among Aussie friends a few decades back. Today ‘a touch of the tar’ (from Max Factor or another manufacturer of make-up) is unacceptable in this role. It has been claimed, perhaps permanently, by distinguished Nigerian and other African actors not from Morocco – with its blue-eyed Berbers, brown-eyed Arabs, and deep black Africans all mixed up, thanks to a long established slave-trade which had nothing to do with Christians.

Richmond’s well-run Orange Tree Theatre now has a newish American play called An Octoroon written by a gifted, reputed 32-year-old, African American Princeton graduate from Washington called Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (who used to work for the New Yorker). It is based on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 New York hit The Octoroon, and directed very well by Ned Bennett, the gifted son of our former neighbour in Streatham who also did Pomona here, which much impressed me (and won prizes). Three of the main actors white up, black up, or red up. A lot is made of this, and it affects how we feel about the played-to-the-hilt melodramatic story, which concerns a young plantation owner newly returned from Paris to find his inheritance under threat from a real baddie. He falls for a lovely girl who knows he should not marry her because of her one-eighth-tainted blood. Nine of the roles are played by the three main actors with coloured-up faces, making for quicker than lightning changes, almost impossible challenges, hysterically expended energy, and a strong sense of reality and emotion. The main roles (the writer BJJ, innocent young George in his blond wig, and the evil M’Closky with villainous moustache, who wants to buy it all including the property’s pretty contented ‘niggers’ who run away to escape the auction) are taken with astonishing brilliance by Ken Nwosu, Hackney-raised and trained at the Drama Centre, and already seen at the RSC and National Theatre. A stage direction says that Nwosu’s whiting up ‘should go on for some time’.

The other duplicated roles include another playwright, Boucicault, who must also be Wahnotee (local ‘native American’ hence his red face) and even later on the robust southern auctioneer Latouche, who explains that he got sunburnt coming from New Orleans in an open carriage (which earned a laugh). Kevin Trainor works hard and well and provides the words of a fourth role if you are counting. Plus, finally, there is the multi-talented handsome-faced partly south Asian Alastair Toovey, perhaps most hard-driven of all, as BJJ’s assistant and two crucial other roles – Pete, who helps the master run everything and keeps an eye on all his fellow ‘niggers’, and young slave Paul, whose murder by M’Closky precipitates the unwinding and winding up of the plot. Southern belle Dora is a wonderful opportunity for Celeste Dodwell, who only has to use lipstick – seized with no holding back. The Octoroon Zoe is touchingly performed by lovely Iola Evans. And three black actresses, Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole, and Cassie Clare provide the still and watchful centre of the living reality at the base of the story – with the added touch for the last named of donning a rather Lewis Carroll-like costume for occasional intrusions by Br’er Rabbit.  

By the end of the play, BJJ’s purpose is achieved. Liberal walkers-out, disgusted with constant non-PC language, have abandoned ship. But most of us at the preview I saw got the point, that roles in the theatre are adopted as in life. We enter the theatre to be entertained and provoked into thinking. The only rule in the theatre is that there are no rules. I think Jacobs-Jenkins has added exactly the right spice to Boucicault’s long-preserved meat – first enjoyed on the very eve of the US Civil War. I think Bennett the director has delicately achieved exactly the mixture of crazed disorder and detached grounded observation on the part of the women slaves that the Irish playwright Boucicault and the resurrecting BJJ both require – to serve a needed appropriate riposte to the PC prescriptiveness now threatening our sense and our enjoyment. Our theatre is, we find, thrillingly endowed with much black talent. We have black stars as Henry V. Anybody can do anything, including white actors wanting to be Othello. We need it all. Acting is more than skin deep, and we are not colourblind.

Nina Raine’s Consent has closed at the National Theatre’s Dorfman (which used to be the Cottesloe), but was a sell-out and certainly merits being sent on a tour or given a West End run. Roger Michell’s careful, detailed, absorbing production was truly virtuosic, achieving really fine performances all round. Equally impressive were Hildegard Bechtler’s brilliantly practical in-the-round set designs – the floor opening and supplying furniture and even the lampshades above suggesting various messages. It is about three barristers and their wives and lives, and how the roles they play in their work connect with the way they relate as old friends. Jake and Edward prosecute and defend a rape case that we get some inkling about. The dialogue is very sharp, realistic. Consent comes to matter personally when marriages wobble and one falls apart. But Gayle, the rape victim in court at the start, is unsurprisingly a different class – and, so, a sad victim of the alienation that implies.

It is this writer’s exact high-octane ear for dialogue and pursuit of the emotional reality of the three high-achieving couples (one of whom is steering unsuccessfully towards marriage) that stokes the wonderful cast, which Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company assembled in partnership with the NT. Most outstanding and unforgettable were Ben Chaplin’s secure over-confident charming Edward and his slightly neglected instinctual feeling wife Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin – brilliantly pained and crushed). Chaplin’s emotional journey, devastated and uncomprehending, when Kitty falls for his slightly despised eupeptic friend Tim (Pip Carter) was agonizing. Heather Craney’s early scene as Gayle the rape victim, discovering the dire reality of having to witness her own fate in court, is just right, but later, with tragedy round the corner and things falling apart, the playwright needed something more fundamentally dislocating and less convenient than mere plot resolution. One feels it is excitingly and movingly close to genius. But bringing the rape victim into Edward’s kitchen, intruding on their slightly fraught socializing, makes for a challenge that the following act does not credibly answer.

An Octoroon runs at Richmond-on-Thames’s Orange Tree Theatre until 1 July. Consent may go on tour next year.