The Emperor Jones
Gate, Notting Hill
Thea Sharrock continues to find interesting and superbly atmospheric productions for her "home" theatre. Following the outstanding Tejas Verdes at the beginning of the year, she has now revived an almost unknown short play by Eugene O'Neill.
The Emperor Jones debuted in London in 1925 with Paul Robeson in the title role and he also played the part in New York and on film. Since then, productions have been few and far between. The mix of a large cast (21 including extras here) and an hour's playing time does not endear a play to producers.
It could be argued that the play might also be performed as a solo with not too much adaptation, since apart from Brutus Jones and a British colonial type - Smithers, nobody else has more than a couple of lines. Having said that, there is a nice cameo from the energetic Dwayne Barnaby playing The Congo Witch Doctor.
The Caribbean-set story is simple but prescient. The Emperor Jones is a self-made leader who trades on savvy and fear. In two years, he has transformed himself from a renegade gaolbird into the emperor of all that he surveys, dressed like Napoleon complete with spurs. His reputation rests on a widespread belief in his immortality with a single Achilles heel, a silver bullet.
This cross between the charismatic Jim Jones of Jonestown Massacre fame and the greedy Duvaliers and Marcoses has enriched himself, stashed the proceeds overseas and knows that he will soon be found out.
He is prepared to depart and as the drums drown out the cicadas, he bequeaths his palace to Paul Wyett's Smithers and takes to the road. From there, his mind begins to unravel as a tragic denouement beckons and past misdemeanours come back to haunt him - shades of Macbeth without the supportive wife.
Jones gradually dispenses with the "frippety emperor trappings" and like Samson sees his power ebbing away.
This richly intense hour takes place in a space like a bear pit. Richard Hudson's setting is in the round or more accurately oblong, with a sandy space of about 10' by 60' well below audience level. This gives a real feeling of the former emperor's entrapment by his own mind and religiously-motivated guilt.
Paterson Joseph is tremendous as The Emperor Jones, both when he is a swaggering ruler and a maddened, defeated man with only his silver bullet left.
As usual, the Gate will sell out very quickly. Book soon or await the almost inevitable extension.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher