Reviewing this production of Eugene O'Neill’s expressionistic play in its original manifestation at the Gate Theatre in 2005, critics declared a transfer impossible. National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner clearly felt otherwise, and director Thea Sharrock has reworked the piece for the wide spaces of the Olivier (as part of the £10 Travelex season), but with the same actor’s mesmerising performance at its core.
Paterson Joseph’s Brutus Jones was unnerving at close quarters - the Gate was transformed into an oblong sandy arena into which the audience of only 65 people peered down - and he is still riveting, although the effect is, of necessity, different. Instead of the intensity of eye contact, of complicity in Jones’ predicament as he hurled himself against the imprisoning fence, we observe him at a distance, in a more spectacular staging.
It's impossible to imagine this part played by a white man - and its earliest exponent in 1920 was indeed a black actor, Charles S Gilpin - but the illuminating programme notes are at pains to point out that the play is not simply about race. Very much the same arguments are posited about Othello, another play written by a white man about a complex black protagonist.
But unlike Othello, Jones is required to utter the word “nigger”, not once but several dozen times, in describing the black islanders who have become his “subjects”. The repetition and his immaculate white colonial uniform make clear Jones’ distancing of himself from those with whom he should feel a sense of brotherhood; American murderer on the run and self-styled emperor of an island in the Indies, he has aligned himself with the white overlords.
The play has political resonances for us some 80 years after it was written: it wouldn't be difficult to name dictators who have forgotten their roots and grind the faces of their subjects. But there's also something universal, about Jones’ mental disintegration. While being very specific, he is also Everyman. In a mere 70 minutes, O’Neill shows Jones’ fall from arrogant ruler to terrified fugitive and, ultimately, fatal victim. Having put about the tale of his invulnerability except to a silver bullet, Jones does not anticipate the manufacturing of such bullets specifically to bring about his demise.
If the performance at the Gate was unforgettable, the Olivier’s challenges have been bravely met and sometimes turned to advantage. In Robin Don’s design, the disc of the Olivier revolve is reflected in another angled, rough disc above it which, cleverly lit by Neil Austin, provides a shifting environment for Jones’ guilt-induced hallucinations.
Choreographer Fin Walker revels in the possibilities of the space. Plantation workers provide a synchronised background to Jones’s troubled visions. Phalanxes of “supernumeraries” converge on the stage as slave owners and their wives for a matter of minutes. Jones leaps, jogs and tumbles around the expanse of the revolve. Later, an insistent drum-beat blossoms into Sister Bliss’ rhythmic, percussive music when Dwayne Barnaby’s Witch Doctor springs from a fiery trap-door to fling himself into a thrilling, wild dance.
All in all, this is much more than a second-hand copy of one of the most extraordinary theatre events of recent years. And, after Elmina's Kitchen, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Saint Joan, Paterson Joseph - swaggering, febrile or sweating with terror - proves himself an established National Theatre star.
- Heather Neill
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from 22 November 2005 and this production’s original run at the Gate Theatre.
On an unnamed Caribbean island, a dictator, put in place by the British, is on his way out. He’s a black man but with all the trappings of a white one, the power, the money, even the ridiculous uniform and medals totally unsuitable for the scorching hot climate. He’s a million miles away from the superstitious natives he oppresses. Or is he? In Eugene O' Neill’s compelling but troubling play we watch Emperor Jones make his well planned escape.
Richard Hudson’s clever set has latched on to an early line comparing the Emperor’s palace to a tomb. It walls the actors into a playing space with the audience placed inches above the action, where they lean over to see the actors like caged animals, or – more uncomfortably – like the audience at the slave market in Jones’ nightmares. Hudson exploits the difficulties of the play for a modern audience; it’s hard to negotiate, particularly when you layer on lashings of liberal guilt in an age of political correctness.
Is O’Neill saying that Brutus Jones’ downfall is because he has turned his back on his ethnicity and is trying to become white? I don’t think so. Maybe this is more akin to a mediaeval morality play. Despite being a Despot, Jones is charming and charismatic, an opportunistic everyman who we warm to. But as his seemingly foolproof escape route through the forest fails him, so too does Jones’ courage and sanity and we witness his regression and delirium. Perhaps that’s simply it, the moral being bad deeds come back to haunt us. But I don’t think it’s that simple either.
For me O’Neill shrewdly and uncannily foresees a ‘Crisis in Blackness’, post-emancipation, which is still very real today, for example with dialogues about what it is to be Black British. Jones has no place; he is American but not accepted by America, different too from the Island’s natives. He doesn’t know who or what he is, prisoner, slave, dictator, feared and loathed, oppressed, oppressor. He is indefinable.
I know this is not a new play - my deliberation is because it is so rarely performed, but productions like Thea Sharrock’s are worth waiting for. It’s hard-hitting and engaging thanks to a tremendous central performance from Paterson Joseph. He plays Jones with a boundless energy and conviction that is as disturbing to watch as it is spellbinding. For once it’s a compliment to say that this play, which is just over an hour, feels much longer because of the epic inner journey on which we are taken.
- Hannah Kennedy