The Theatreguide.London Review
The Emperor Jones
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2007
One of the minor ironies of American theatre history is that Eugene O'Neill won the Nobel Prize for a body of work that is now generally considered unproduceable, while his true masterpieces all came, some of them posthumously, after the Nobel.
The Emperor Jones (1920) kicked off O'Neill's most experimental period with its attempt to put on stage what was going on in the mind of its protagonist.
And, more successfully than I have ever seen or could have imagined, director Thea Sharrock and actor Paterson Joseph make it work brilliantly, creating 70 uninterrupted minutes of intense psychological drama.
Brutus Jones is an American black man who has used his street smarts to rule and exploit the natives of a Caribbean island. Sensing that they're about to turn on him, he makes his escape, only to get lost in the twin jungles of the island and his own fears.
O'Neill imagines scenes from Jones' personal past - a chain gang, a murder - and then his racial memory - a slave auction, an African tribal ceremony - stripping away his veneer of rationality and self-control.
It is the staging of these visions (which include at one point grub-like 'Little Formless Fears') that poses a challenge to actor, director and audience. And this National Theatre production meets the challenges by anchoring everything in a solid psychological reality that makes the adventure and each of its steps believable and evocative.
Paterson Joseph introduces Jones as a man of intelligence and wit, giving a thoroughly natural sound to O'Neill's sometimes clunky dialogue.
(O'Neill was in may ways the greatest of American playwrights, but he did have a tin ear for ordinary speech and was hopeless with dialects.)
After an opening scene of exposition and backstory with John Marquez as a white trader, the play is virtually a non-stop internal monologue for Jones, and Joseph holds our interest and belief throughout.
Thea Sharrock solves the problem of the visions by having the exhausted Jones repeatedly nod off, so the scenes have both the believability and nightmarish intensity of dreams. (She also wisely omits the Little Formless Fears.)
And while the slave auction scene might be a little more elaborate than is really necessary, it does fill the Olivier stage for a few colourful moments.
I should note that if you are of a particularly tender politically correct nature, there may well be some things in this 1920s portrait of a black man that will bother you. But see past them to what is a rich, engrossing and ultimately respectful psychological portrait.
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