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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at National Theatre( Olivier)

By Clive Hirschhorn

  Paterson Joseph

When it was first performed in 1920, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones consolidated the young playwright's reputation as the freshest, most innovatve new voice in the American theater.

Earlier that year, his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which opened on Broadway to great acclaim and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, heralded a major new talent.

The Emperor Jones, staged in Greewich Village by the Provincetown Players, turned the spotlight on a dramatist not afraid to experiment with form and to push the boundaries of his craft in a direction no American playwright had ever taken before.

Highly theatrical, darkly lyrical, unconventional in structure and length (the play runs just over an hour without intermission), virtually a monologue, and with a black actor as its protagonist - it broke all the rules of play-making and was an instant success both with the critics and the public.

Eighty seven years later, despite the fullness of time and a change in the social status of African-Americans, the play still packs quite a punch.

That said, with its strong element of racial stereotyping, it risks being highly offensive to contemporary audiences.

Of course, that was never O'Neill's intention. And although it's true that Brutus Jones, the eponymous hero, does indeed conform to an outmoded racial template in which blacks are viewed as violent, superstitious and barely civilized, O'Neill, is attempting to encapsulate the whole history of the black experience in America - from slavery auctions to chain gangs.

And if there's a message to be traduced from it all, its that, regardless of the color of our skins, there's something primitive, violent and acquisitive in Mankind in general.

The play is set on an un-named West Indian island, despotically ruled by Brutus Jones (Paterson Joseph), an ex-Pullman porter from Harlem, who has escaped from an American prison and now corruptly lords it over a local native community who, when the play opens, have revolted and taken off for the rain forests.

Dressed in the kind of splendid military finery that befits his self-acclaimed status and armed with a revolver containing five lead bullets and the single silver bullet capable of killing him (the play was originally called The Silver Bullet), Brutus confidently enters the forest to track the rebels down.

But as he plunges deeper and deeper into the island's heart of darkness, and to the ominous, hypnotic accompaniment of tom-toms, he begins to hallucinate. Scenes from his criminal past return to haunt him, as do some of the murkier aspects of black history.

Finally, stripped of his clothes as well as his sanity, he returns to the very place he has been running from all his life - his Congolese roots - and to the primitive mindset of his forefathers.

He is finally killed by his enemies with a silver bullet.

Influenced by German expressionism, and by Ibsen's Peer Gynt, The Emperor Jones, which belongs to O'Neill's experimental period in which he was striving to create an all-encompassing brand of theater, is a unique dramatic experience which lends itself to an all-encompassing production.

It gets it (and then some!) under Thea Sharrock's exciting and imaginative direction for the National Theater.

With a stunningly effective set by Robin Don that takes full-advantage of the Olivier's revolving stage, and with Neil Austin's subtle lighting, Gregory Clarke's brilliant use of sound effects and Sister Bliss's percussive score, the physical aspect of the production could not be better.

But it is Paterson Joseph's central performance as Brutus Jones that is the evening's tour de forc


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