The Emperor Jones, NT Olivier, London<br/>Orpheus X, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh<br/>Mabou Mines Dollhouse, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Paterson Joseph is electrifying as an American jailbird trying to fleece an island tribe in a study of racism, madness and memory
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's a touch of bling about this. In Eugene O'Neill's early hallucinatory play, The Emperor Jones (1920), we glean that the sovereign is an African-American jailbird who has escaped to lord it over a tribe on a Caribbean island. In Thea Sharrock's National Theatre production, which features an electrifying central performance by Paterson Joseph, Jones's palace looks like a rickety former chapel, built from corrugated iron but now lavishly gilded. It has, metaphorically, been dedicated to Mammon (design by Robin Don). Up on his dais, Joseph is also resplendently gleaming as Jones. He cuts a fabulous figure, uniformed like a colonial general in white, heavily decorated with gold epaulettes and matching braid.

In his opening exchange with John Marquez's Smithers – a runty, racist cockney trader in a pith helmet – Jones indicates that he has previously been a poor railroad porter "listenin' to de white quality talk", and has then done time, subjected to hard labour in a chain gang. Now he is determined to get rich quick, fleecing the natives whom he disses as "bush niggers" with black-on-black scorn.

However, his victims have already turned the tables and are hunting him down, with ominous tom-toms. Attempting to make his getaway through the jungle, Jones's confidence starts to peel away and he goes crazy. Frantically circling and weirdly journeying backwards through time, he is haunted by his past murderous crimes, his own early hardships and then the historic sufferings of his oppressed race. He finds himself, nightmarishly, in a Southern slave auction and a slave ship. Shooting bullets at these apparitions cannot save him.

O'Neill's play and Sharrock's staging have their weak points. Marquez is stiff. His bleedin' bloomin' cockney idioms never sound authentic. It is not really clear either what O'Neill meant by having Jones climactically enthralled by a witch-doctor, and the latter's tribal dance worked better in Sharrock's potently claustrophobic Gate Theatre staging in 2005.

Certainly, the implication that Jones is a primitive soul just below his Westernised surface seems potentially condescending from a white playwright. Yet what overridingly comes across here is a trenchant condemnation of racial supremacism and of the bad attitudes that Jones shares with Smithers. O'Neill is also, beyond race, universally exploring notions of the subconscious, profound fears and mental disintegration. Jones is stripped down, not unlike Lear on the heath, as well as being a murderous dictator akin to Macbeth, spooked by the blood on his hands.

Joseph is, firstly, brilliant in making his dialect – which looks caricatured on the page – sound completely natural and inventively witty. His behavioural detailing is pin-sharp as well. There's just a flash of gangsta rappa in the snaky flick of a forearm. His Jones is, in fact, fascinatingly mercurial and complex, slipping from the macho to mocking dandyish camp to endearingly funny childishness – which deftly sows the seeds for his temporal regression. One minute he is teasing and grinning, the next darting-eyed and dangerous. The rising panic is superbly paced, and Joseph also slides effortlessly from naturalism to near-dancing athleticism (choreographed by Fin Walker). Against all the odds, he manages to race around the large Olivier stage, miming a whole jungle solo – tumbling over non-existent rocks and scrabbling with completely invisible undergrowth – and he has you on the edge of your seat. This is one brilliant actor of whom we are, surely, going to see much more. The other real star of this show is the music by Sister Bliss. Fantastic drumming – and all for a tenner, courtesy of the NT's Travelex season.

By contrast, my armchair ratings (see above) should really show me despondently sprawled flat on the floor after this week's two Edinburgh International Festival productions. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Orpheus X is a technically radical but deeply tedious reworking of the myth. The musically gifted hero, of course, fails to bring his beloved Eurydice back from Hades, but boring the audience to death en route is an unwelcome development. The shorn-headed, jowly writer and composer Rinde Eckert – having cast himself as a modern-day Orpheus – stands downstage, drearily trying to act like an obsessed and depressed rock star. He barely opens his eyes as he bangs on, playing electric guitar and singing with his band about this blood-drenched stranger who died in his arms after his taxi hit her.

To be fair, making Orpheus a perversely morbid romantic is potentially interesting, and a few startling poetic images leap out from the mire of pretension. Nevertheless, Eckert's music – ranging from thrash rock through modern opera to repeating minimalist loops – rarely grabbed me. The grungy industrial set's iron girders, one of them disturbingly streamed with blood, blocked my view of Suzan Hanson's Eurydice in the underworld. I know Orpheus isn't, but surely we are allowed to glimpse .

Finally, the New York avant-garde director Lee Breuer exasperatingly brought out the worst in Ibsen's A Doll's House in his anti-naturalistic reworking. Visually, Mabou Mines Dollhouse (named after Breuer's company) is strikingly wacky. Nora's patriarchal husband, Torvald, is played by a dwarf actor and their domestic furnishings are miniature too. Regrettably though, this soon makes the fact that he is petty and she is going to outgrow their marriage just seem glaringly obvious. The auteur's cast turn most of the play into a pointlessly over-busy pantomime. Instead of conveying psychological subtleties or creating suspense, they send up and magnify the melodrama – only pushing that more interestingly into operatic arias at the end.

Their cod-Scandinavian accents are funny for about five seconds. The slapstick, running around under strobe lighting, is not executed with any outstanding panache. This is an ironic production. Only the irony is that it looks as if Mabou Mines are mocking the original, quite missing Ibsen's sharp social satire and groundbreaking realism.

'The Emperor Jones' (020 7452 3000) to 31 October

Need to know

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) was a pioneer of naturalism on the American stage. He won a Nobel Prize in 1936 and a Pulitzer for his painfully autobiographical 'Long Day's Journey into Night'. The son of a barnstorming Irish-American actor and a fragile morphine-addict mother, O'Neill in turn suffered from alcoholism and depression. He disowned his teenage daughter, Oona, when she married Charlie Chaplin, then 54. His sons both committed suicide, having become drink and drug addicts.

Further reading Eugene O'Neill 'Three Plays: Desire under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra' (Vintage)

This week Kate saw Impressionists by the Sea at the Royal Academy of Arts: "I was particularly taken with the Whistlers. His 'Sea and Rain' is almost like abstract modernism – wide, pale stripes of sand, water and sky." Kate also listened to Elvis Presley: "I know it's smarmy but I'm a sucker for 'It's Now Or Never'"

Comments