Premiered in 1920, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones was a landmark piece in more ways than one. It was the first American play to deal seriously with black experience (or offer a leading role to a black actor) and it introduced Expressionist theatre techniques to the US. Thea Sharrock's splendid revival proves that this drama - a morally challenging white perspective on a black man warped by white oppression - still pulses with theatrical vitality.
The protagonist, Brutus Jones, is bent on beating the whites at their own game. An escaped convict from the Deep South, he has become the tyrannical emperor of a West Indian island by barricading himself with a myth of invincibility. His contempt for the gullible natives, who swallow his story that only a silver bullet can kill him, is rollickingly robust. Unlike the white imperialists whose motives are both mercenary and missionary, this guy is in it purely for the dosh - "I'se after de coin, an' I lays my Jesus on de shelf for de time bein'".
But then, warned of imminent uprising, he goes on the run in a jungle where he's prey to haunting visions of the history (personal and atavistic) he tried to escape.
In this Gate production, brilliantly designed by Richard Hudson, the audience peer down at proceedings in a sunken, sand-filled trough, suggesting both bear-pit and grave. Paterson Joseph is magnificent at every stage of Jones's journey. At first, in his swanky regimentals, he's like a parody of an African dictator. Oozing cocky charm, he can't get enough of his own cleverness and enjoys playing up to, then subverting racial stereotypes when boasting of his exploits to Paul Wyett's sweaty white trader. Once forced into flight, he superbly shows a man reduced to a convulsive wreck by the virulence of his fears.
Sharrock's revival pulls you into this nightmare with terrific flair. The impression that the forest is closing in on Jones is ingeniously conveyed by the ominous beat of tom-toms and overhead fans dropping lower and lower. Bathed in Adam Silverman's sepulchral light, the visions - the return of a man Jones had killed; a chain-gang; a slave auction; a witch-doctor - materialise spookily through the walls.
With the protagonist seized by the mounting panic of powerlessness, these apparitions seem to regress through history to aboriginal horror. In the underworld, you feel, Jones and Macbeth will have a lot to talk about.
To 17 December (020-7229 0706)Reuse content