The Emperor Jones was first seen in late 2005 at the tiny Gate theatre in north London, with a highly acclaimed performance from Paterson Joseph in the title role. Eugene O’Neill’s tale of a confidence trickster turned ruler of an unnamed small nation has been restaged at the National Olivier with startling results. Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience.
Paterson Joseph has been playing his fair share of authority figures recently. When he is not playing Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones, he is portraying a French bishop in Saint Joan, and last year he played the Inca Sun King in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, also at the National. Watching him leap around the stage as Jones in the Thea Sharrock-directed production, it is easy to see why he has been cast in these roles; he is a strong, authoritative presence, prowling and powerful.
The political and historical significance of O’Neill’s play cannot be overestimated. Written in 1920, he was one of the first playwrights to have a black character as the central figure. The play was staged on Broadway at a time when it was common for white actors to black up, and caused a sensation when O’Neill organised a boycott of a celebratory dinner that excluded the black star of the show, Charles S Gilpin.
Brutus Jones is a smart conman, an escaped convict who has managed to steal, lie and cheat his way into becoming Emperor. He is significantly more intelligent than his white advisor and long term acquaintance, Henry Smithers (John Marquez), a sleazy Cockney trader with a slippery, violent personality. Smithers takes great delight in the downfall of Jones, while admiring his foresight and cunning in planning his escape.
Robin Don’s impressive design has the Emperor’s golden wicker throne sitting high above the stage, in a towering, ramshackle palace of gilded corrugated iron. When he runs into the deep, dark woods to evade his would-be captors, the house disappears and is replaced by a huge threatening disc of the same material, suspended above the stage, and him, in a most portentous way.
A constant thudding drum booms in the background as Jones tries to get away through the forest, like an ominous heartbeat. As he begins to descend into madness, scenes are punctuated with thrilling percussive music, written by Sister Bliss of electronica outfit Faithless, and played by a live band high above the audience at the sides of the stage.
The smart, rational charlatan is slowly replaced by a terrified, animalistic madman as he is haunted by ghosts of his past; the men he has killed, and the brutal pain of his forefathers. Strong movement sections, choreographed by Fin Walker, highlight the loss of individuality that he has fought against in his violent and impetuous way.
The Emperor Jones is a sharp portrayal of the effect of generations of cruelty and contempt, but also of how quickly we can set aside rationality and descend into anarchy.