Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Review: The Emperor Jones

Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones was first staged in New York in 1920, arrives at the Olivier Theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season. Thea Sharrock’s production was initially staged at Notting Hill’s tiny Gate Theatre in 2005 (when she was artistic director there), and Patterson Joseph reprises his role as the eponymous ruler of a tiny Caribbean Island. This play has immense power and uses a number of styles from expressionistic dream sequences to realism, but I found the staging in the huge Olivier lacked some of the directness and strength that it had at the Gate. In the Gate we sat around a small rectangular pit, where all the claustrophobic action took place, where we felt almost part of the action and were able to study the expression of the desperate Jones up close. In the Olivier, naturally, everything is massive and more imposing, but not necessarily better (the feeling of claustrophobia is also, naturally, gone). Joseph’s powerful acting, his cocky swagger turning into fear and despair via terrified mania and his brilliantly realised physical performance, are riveting to watch. Sharrock’s direction is excellent, she uses movement and music to great effect in the larger auditorium and her acting ensemble are very good at conjuring up collective memories that haunt Jones (like a 19th century slave auction). However I felt that the huge number of ‘supernumeraries’ (as the cast sheet puts it) used in the slave auction scene was totally out of proportion to the needs of the piece (as the term supernumeraries actually suggests), and simply there to fill up the stage. The plot is groundbreaking for a play written sometime before 1920, a black prisoner (an unfortunate double murderer) has escaped form the USA and made for the West Indies, there he tricks the inhabitants of one small island into believing that he has special powers and eventually becomes their ‘Emperor’ (they are ‘bush niggers’ whom he looks down upon, terrorises and steals from). We first meet Jones on the day of reckoning; his subjects have fled to the hills, marshalling witchcraft and courage in order to kill him. Jones flees and on his journey we see shadows of his past played out as dark haunting memories. The play has some empathy with the plight of black people, the legacy of slavery and the harshness of justice for them, it shows Jones as an intelligent man able to trick the simple natives. But here lies to trouble too, the stereotypical negro language that Jones uses, his derision of the natives (equally to that of any white imperialist), and the credulity of the tribe he tricks, as well as the mental collapse of Jones, can be used (or some will say) to negatively stereotype black people. All I can say is, that this play engenders sympathy for Jones, it highlights the injustices of racisms (though in a subtle way), it highlights the barbarity of slavery (of any kind), and it ultimately shows humanity. This 70 minute piece is highly recommended, it is simply beautiful storytelling.

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