The Olivier is big. It’s the biggest of the National Theatre’s three performance spaces and a large venue by any standards. So how would this production of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely performed early work The Emperor Jones, first staged at Notting Hill’s tiny Gate Theatre, fare in such a cavernous space?
The answer is pretty well. I didn’t see Thea Sharrock’s 2005 production but it was noted for its intensity and the claustrophobic atmosphere it created in the Gate’s intimate space through reconfiguring the seating so that the audience looked down on the action from above. Claustrophobia is a rather difficult sensation to invoke in a space the size of the Olivier, but Sharrock, aided by some inventive set design and lighting, successfully creates the feverish atmosphere this play requires.
The excellent Paterson Joseph reprises his role as the self-declared ruler of a small West Indian island. He plays a black American prisoner who, having killed his prison guard and escaped across the water, talks the island inhabitants into becoming their Emperor. However they soon tire of his despotic rule and turn against him leaving him with little recourse but to flee into the forest, fearing for his life.
Hungry and alone, taunted by a relentless tribal drumbeat, he is forced to shed his finery, peeling of boots and clothing in the heat, until he is left completely diminished, half naked and sweat-slick. Joseph is superb, in what is very much his show. His performance is, by necessity, both a charismatic and a very physical one. As his character becomes increasingly paranoid and desperate, he dashes back and forth across the stage, often hurling himself to the floor with considerable force. Jones is haunted by images of slavery and shadows of his past misdeeds, as O’Neil’s play, presumably startling for its time (it was published in 1920), delves into the black American experience, throwing out scenes of chain gangs and slave auctions, wailing souls ripped from their homeland.
The increasingly unnerving atmosphere is enhanced by a hypnotic percussive accompaniment. This combined with the use light, filtered through a huge disc of corrugated metal suspended from the Olivier ceiling, creates a real feeling of heat and oppression (I was reminded of the sweatbox scenes in films such as Bridge On The River Kwai). However this intense quality was sometimes punctured by the seeming need to fill the Olivier space with people. I found the slave auction scene where a sudden influx of extras in period costume filled the stage rather unnecessary, it pierced the carefully-constructed mood of the piece.
This is a powerful, unusual and intense production with its thudding heartbeat drum and a compact one at just 70 minutes. Paterson Joseph is excellent; his initial bravado rapidly deflating. He convincingly descends into confusion and fear as the forest and the past, in every sense, closes in on him. However, compelling as the production was, it did still leave me wishing I’d caught it during its previous incarnation at the Gate.