First Night: The Emperor Jones, Olivier, National Theatre, London

O'Neill's bold journey of the mind undone by Olivier's vast spaces
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The Independent Culture

Taking its black protagonist on a trip to the heart of darkness, Eugene O'Neill's daring Expressionist drama The Emperor Jones (1920) is one of those journey-of-the-mind plays that, like Peer Gynt, work best either in studio conditions (indicating the claustrophobic confines of the self) or in an epic arena (indicating the wider context and the extent of the mental voyage).

Two years ago, director Thea Sharrock won great acclaim with a version at the tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill that set the piece at the bottom of a deep pit with the audience looking down on the hero and his panic-stricken flight as though he were the big game in a safari trap. As part of the Travelex £10 season at the National, that production has been reconceived for a theatre that is the Gate's polar opposite. You'd have difficulty parking a mini on the stage of the latter, whereas you could drive a fleet of trucks round the Olivier. Sharrock has responded to the change of scale with audacious inventiveness, though for various reasons I prefer her earlier, more intimate account.

The constant is Paterson Joseph, who is stunningly good as the eponymous Jones, an escaped African-American convict who has installed himself as the dictator of a West Indian island. Here, beating the whites at their own racist game, he has exploited the natives whom he dismisses as "dem fool bush niggers".

When, however, he hears that these subjects are about to revolt, he tries to make his escape through a forest where he is haunted not just by memories of his own past (chain-gangs etc) but by apparitions from the collective unconscious of slave auctions and witch-doctor ceremonies.

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.

The pit at the Gate gave the proceedings a wonderfully internalised feel, in keeping with the pursuers' tom-tom that speeds up as Jones's pulse-rate accelerates and with the sense that the phantoms are projections of his atavistic fears.

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.

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