(This is a not-for-class review, and proof that writing a love letter review can, in fact, be quite difficult.)
Eugene O'Neill's 1920 hit “The Emperor Jones” has long been known as the type of play which, despite being difficult to read, bursts to life onstage like few others. It is my great pleasure to announce that the current production at the National Theatre rises to the occasion and excels at the unity of text, music, and spectacle which created the modern theatre.
The title character, superbly played by Paterson Joseph, is far from being a noble monarch. A murderous African-American ex-con on the run, Brutus Jones lands on a small Caribbean island and quickly scams the natives into declaring him emperor, with all of the financial and social perks attached. As the play begins, an old woman is caught trying to escape the palace by corrupt British trader Henry Smithers (John Marquez), and confesses that a revolution is at hand. Smithers relates this news to Jones, who rejects it almost out of hand, claiming superiority over the savages he rules, while taking the threat seriously enough to enact a contingency plan.
As Jones strips away his regal garb, so too does he strip away his pretensions as ghosts of his past, and indeed, all Black Americans' past, come to haunt him until he reaches equality with those he lorded over at the beginning of the play. The Emperor's demons are not those which seek to depose him, but his own misdeeds and fear of inferiority which cause his downfall. Mr. Joseph manages to run the entire gamut of Jones's path, from arrogance to meek exhaustion, with the utmost sincerity and passion.
In addition to Joseph's acting, credit must be given to Robin Don's sets which, when coupled with Neil Austin's lighting, create a haunting and psychotic portrait of the nighttime forest which ensnares the deposed emperor. By taking advantage of the forest canopy's angle and a raised turntable, the stage always feels comfortably full, even in moments where Mr. Joseph stands alone. Mr. Austin's lighting brings the audience through the stages of the night, from dusk to stillness, and back towards a fiery, raging dawn. Combined with a driving and tribal score composed by Sister Bliss and played live by a band of five, the viewer is forcefully pulled into Brutus Jones's world and whisked around through his descent.
The ensemble cast do what they can, but a minimal amount of material is available – the central six of the play's eight scenes are monologues by Jones. The one brief exception to these is a pre-civil war slave auction, where the stage is flooded with nameless, finely dressed white actors bidding on Jones during his penultimate hallucination. The only secondary character with a significant amount of material is Mr. Marquez's Smithers, and the role is acted with an appropriate amount of sleaze and contempt.
Modern audiences should be warned that O'Neill's text is a product of his era, and a specific racial epithet is used frequently by both Jones and Smithers. However, to update the text or censor it would be to reduce its power. Jones is so confident of himself and the fear he has instilled that he uses the white man's demeaning terms towards those who would be his own people, and are indeed his ancestors. When the play was written, the after effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction were still being felt, even as the US emerged from the first World War. It would take another 40 years for the play to lose its sense of contemporary relevance, by which time it had entered the American canon.
Where: National Theatre (Olivier)
When: Now until 7 October. Most shows at 19:30.
Cost: £27.50, £10 (Travelex £10 season, full circle and first three rows of the stalls)
Concessions: £10 rush for Students, Equity, Seniors, Unemployed, etc. Best available 45 min. before curtain, go straight to the Olivier box office on the 2nd floor, not the general one at the entry.
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £27.50 for an amazing performance and beautiful design. That said, get the tickets for a tenner if you can. All seats in the house are fine.
RZ other notes: If you take the front stalls £10 tickets, be prepared for a brief jet of fire directly in front of you. Also, major props to the National for making photocopied cast and creative lists available without needing to pay £3 for a programme.