Theatre reviews:  An Octoroon, at the Abbey; Frankenstein - How to Make a Monster, at the Gate

An Octoroon is an inspired take on race, while Frankenstein offers top-class beatboxing 
Theatre reviews:  An Octoroon, at the Abbey; Frankenstein - How to Make a Monster, at the Gate

Scenes from An Octoroon, and Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster.

An Octoroon

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

★★★★★

Dion Boucicault was a true innovator, but we don’t have much time for his kind of melodrama these days, and certainly not for his 1859 play The Octoroon. 

A huge hit, the play is in ways anti-slavery, but, as you’d expect, deeply racist in its depictions of people of colour. Its clunky Southern plantation inheritance plot turns on the title character’s “curse” – her one-eighth black heritage. 

A scene from An Octoroon. Picture: Ros Kavanagh
A scene from An Octoroon. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

The brilliance of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon is to contain a playful metatheatrical critique of The Octoroon and its representations of slavery and race while sending up its sensation-theatre ludicrousness, even while using large sections of the original’s unpalatable language. 

The result is a thrilling ride – hilarious, inventive, irreverent, and challenging. It’s smart as hell, but eloquent and moving too. Anthony Simpson-Pike deftly directs, as all the play’s eclecticism, ideas and wide emotional range comes through. Sabine Dargent’s set is, like the play, multifaceted to powerful effect. 

In an excellent cast, the Nigerian-Irish actor Patrick Martins is a revelation, playing BJJ, the onstage incarnation of the playwright, before using whiteface to play both the hero and villain of the piece. 

An Octoroon is a very American take on America’s biggest subject, race. But, Boucicault’s Dublin roots aside, it's an inspired piece of programming by the Abbey for what it asks about what Irish theatre is for, and where it might go, in our changing country. A must-see.

  • Until May 14

Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster

Gate Theatre, 

★★★★☆

Hip-hop and beatboxing are not what immediately spring to mind when you think of the Gate Theatre, Selina Cartmell’s invigorating directorship notwithstanding.

 Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster signals this from the off, as the usual reminder to turn off phones is rebuffed by Conrad Murray the co-director and host for the evening. He wants us to record and share.

Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster. Picture: Joyce Nicholls
Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster. Picture: Joyce Nicholls

 So, if you’ve any doubts about seeing the show, either in Dublin or when it switches to the Cork Midsummer Festival, you can fire up Twitter to help you make up your mind. 

What you’ll find, in this production by Battersea Arts Centre and Beatbox Academy, is a superbly talented vocal ensemble, delivering virtuoso performances on the mic. Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel may only be a framework, but the spirit of the original is updated cannily. 

Explorations of what it means to be a 21st-century outsider, for instance, give the show a depth that makes it more than merely a gig. This social commentary is a tad obvious at times, and the narrative fizzles out frustratingly. But there’s too much to admire and enjoy for that to be a problem.

  • At the Gate until April 30; at Everyman Cork June 17-18

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