This is the shortest play I think I've ever seen in the Olivier Theatre at the National. At a few minutes over an hour it's even shorter than some of the one act plays I see on the fringe. Don't get me wrong, short can be, and often is very good - and it has the distinct advantage of providing more time in the bar to mull over the production after the curtain. And to be fair, the National mostly presents shows that provide considerable value for money with running times in the 3 hour region. However, I sensed some surprise from the packed audience when the final curtain arrived in place of the interval.
Demonstrating that small can be economic as well as highly successful, this production of Eugene O'Neill's play 'The Emperor Jones' (first performed in 1920) is a welcome transfer from the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Though I didn't see the original, I suspect it's grown somewhat in size and complexity to fit the enormous space that the Oliver Theatre provides. And in the course of transforming, I suspect it's also lost some of the intensity that might have been more evident at the Gate.
Brutus Jones, a black American with something of a chequered, criminal past has set himself up as tyrannical 'Emperor' of a community of what he calls 'bush niggers'. Complete with dictator-style uniform trimmed in gold, his objective has been to exploit his 'subjects' and pilfer their resources. However, it all turns sour when the Emperor awakes from his afternoon siesta one day to find that his subjects have deserted him and retreated into the forest. Jones decides it's time to gather some of the wealth he's stashed and catch a ship to pastures new. But once in the forest, he's quickly disorientated and subsequently plagued by visions, nightmares and the constantly beating native drums.
In spite of the brevity, two aspects of this show stand out: the strenuous and compelling characterisation provided by a muscular Paterson Joseph in the lead role as Brutus Jones, and the typically high production values. Robin Don's set cleverly utilises corrugated iron for the palace interior as well to conjure up a forest too (and it works, strange as it might seem). The creepy forest atmosphere is created by polished and unnerving musical accompaniment together with highly effective lighting design by Neil Austin which shines through the tattered gaps in the set just like moonlight seeping through a forest canopy. It's all wrapped-up with meticulous direction from Thea Sharrock.
That's not to say that everything in this jungley garden is totally rosy. I began to get a little fidgety during the protracted first scene between Jones and his slimy, limey sidekick Henry Smithers (ably played by John Marquez). Though the scene provides the essential back story, it seemed long. But after that, the play really gets into its stride when Jones follows his ex-followers into the spooky forest and becomes almost a collective conscience as he's confronted by visions of slavery as well as his own wrongdoings.
O'Neill's play is a complex piece which is not easy to dissect succinctly. Its unsettling themes obviously cover tyranny, slavery, racism and the oppression of African Americans, but it also takes us beyond all that to explore something about basic human instincts - such as fear - which drive our actions and behaviour. As Jones faces agonising torments in the forest, there's a real sense that we recognise a place we all know too well.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Nearly 90 years after its New York premiere Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones still startles with its novelty, timeless political relevance and daring theatricality." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Paterson Joseph..is stunningly good as the eponymous Jones." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " The play still has the capacity to shock and unnerve...It also offers a titanic leading role which Paterson Joseph superlatively fills." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "As I left this undeniably powerful production, I couldn't help reflecting that this landmark, but now dated, play might have been better left on the shelf to gather dust." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It’s still tense, riveting, even thrilling stuff."