The Emperor Jones, Eugene O’Neill’s rarely performed 1920 drama, opened last night (28 August, previews from 22 August) at the National Theatre. After originally playing at the 70-seat Gate Theatre in Notting Hill back in 2005, the production has been completely re-imagined for the 1,100 Olivier auditorium, with Thea Sharrock once again directing Paterson Joseph in the title role (See News, 4 May 2007).
Faced with revolt, the delusional ‘Emperor’ - an American ex-convict who has connived his way into a dictatorship over a remote West Indies island - escapes to the dark forest where the searing heat and ominous pulse of his trackers’ drums take their toll.
In addition to Paterson Joseph, the cast also includes include John Marquez, Dwayne Barnaby, Adrian Christopher, Olivette Cole-Wilson, Yemi Goodman-Ajibade, Brooks Livermore, Rex Obano, Daniel Poyser, Leroy Ricardo-Jones, Corinne Skinner Carter and Jonathan Taylor. The production runs in rep until 31 October 2007 as the final production in this year’s Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier.
After the runaway success of the Gate season, the critics are still in thrall to The Emperor Jones, although most admit that the once-intimate staging has lost a little special something in its upsized re-conception. Nevertheless, Robin Don’s new “beautiful symbolist design” does a lot to tackle the sheer scale of the Olivier stage. And, acting-wise, all fears are allayed by Paterson Joseph who once more delivers a “tour de force” performance which is “worth the price of the ticket” alone.
Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “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’s guilt-induced hallucinations. Choreographer Fin Walker revels in the possibilities of the space … 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.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Thea Sharrock's production of Eugene O'Neill's 1920 expressionist drama made a shattering impact at the Gate Theatre in 2005: not least because it turned the audience into guilty voyeurs peering down into a sand-filled sarcophagus. Inevitably, at the Olivier the production becomes a public spectacle but, whatever the loss in claustrophobic intensity, the play still has the capacity to shock and unnerve … Obviously it is a white writer's vision but, historically, it was the first serious American play to encompass black experience. It also offers a titanic leading role which Paterson Joseph superlatively fills. Exuding a mixture of danger and smug invincibility when kitted out as a gold-braided emperor, he gradually turns into a scuttling, dream-haunted figure but also one standing proudly defiant before the top-hatted slave-owners. The circularity of Joseph's journey into the past is also underlined by Robin Don's set with its curving platforms and revolving central disc. And in John Marquez's performance as a Cockney trader, who connives with and ultimately betrays the hero, we are reminded of O'Neill's central point of the contaminating influence of white values on African-American culture.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Joseph pulls off a brilliant tour de force, graduating from the gleefully comic congratulatory of the despot in his gold-braided white uniform, through the unnerved bluster of the rattled fugitive to the howling desperation of the distraught, paranoid creature who fires his pistol into eerily inviolable spectres … In the Olivier, we look, from a distance, at Robin Don's striking design - a gilded tin shack of a palace that downgrades to a battered tin canopy for the forest scenes. The central acting area is a disc surrounded by a circular walkway down which the Jungian ghosts make their entrance. This arrangement gives Joseph the latitude for physical, frantic flight. But the episodes with the apparitions are so spectacular and boisterously percussive (there are shuddering company dances with the witch doctor) that they feel a mite anthropological and so obscure a vital point made by the Gate version - that O'Neill's boldest and most humane stroke was to turn Jones, who is warped by the history of white oppression, into an everyman figure with whose psychological meltdown we can all identify.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Nearly 90 years after its New York premiere Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones still startles with its novelty, timeless political relevance and daring theatricality. These elements are realised in a spectacular production by Thea Sharrock that inevitably lacks the claustrophobia and invention of her staging of the play in 2005 at the tiny Gate theatre, where audiences peered down at a prison-pit playing area ... Paterson Joseph's swaggering, white-uniformed Emperor, festooned with medals, escapes to a forest and finds it the heart of darkness. He goes to pieces as he comes up against revenants, ghosts of his criminal past - the black man and the white he killed. In Robin Don's beautiful symbolist design on a revolving stage, the walls of a gold palace are dramatically tilted away to reveal a dark, damaged obverse - that which is repressed … Five musicians and 40 dancing, miming, trooping supernumeraries bring O'Neill's timeless, dark-night of the soul vision menacingly alive.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “To me, it's a stretch to see any such political wisdom in the play … Ever the most long-winded of playwrights, he (O’Neill) flogs his one dramatic idea to death - only he could make 70 minutes drag so slowly - and the piece is ultimately trite. That said, director Thea Sharrock has pulled out all the stops with this production in the National's latest cut-price Travelex season. Designer Robin Don's gold corrugated iron is a clever touch for Jones' tin-pot palace, and an oppressive jungle canopy brings a mood of claustrophobia even as the stage crowds with an enormous mob of extras … Best of all is Paterson Joseph, who is quite extraordinary in the title role. Never less than entrancing, he goes from charismatic and often comic roguery to God-fearing blubbering with a kind of rubberised energy you associate more with chorus boys than a leading man. It confirms him as a major figure of the stage, and his performance alone is worth the price of the ticket. It's just a shame that the material itself is so flimsy. Unfortunately it's a case of the Emperor Jones having no clothes.”
- by Tom Atkins