The play is very dated in terms of its portrayal of race and that is something audiences may – rightly – struggle with.
The titular Jones is an African-American convict who sets himself up as the Emperor of a small island, possibly in the Caribbean. As the play begins a rebellion is in progress and Jones has been forced to flee his palace, making a pre-planned escape. But as Jones loses himself in the forest, he becomes progressively more unbalanced.
The play uses what are now overtly racist terms, as well as images of voodoo, witch doctors and an abundance of other offensive stereotypes and this is the reason it is not often staged. Some previous attempts to revive the play have used alternative casting or blackface in an effort to address the play’s depiction of race, however Ciaran OReilly has revived the play exactly as written, confident an audience will grasp that it is a piece of its time.
John Douglas Thompson’s performance in the central role is amazing. It’s a superb piece of stage acting; he throws himself into the role of a man haunted by demons, imagined or otherwise. In the early scenes, while Jones still clings to power, Thompson is full of bluster and bravado; his character’s later mental breakdown is all the more powerful because of this. He easily commands the respect and fear of the fawning Henry Smithers, a minor accomplice. The play shines a single intense light into the character of Brutus Jones and Thompson dominates the stage in every way.
The staging of the forest madness scenes is beautifully done with the ensemble bringing the trees and, with them, the nightmares of the forest to life. OReilly uses the small Irish Rep stage perfectly; the trees of the forest become ever more threatening and visions start to haunt Jones.
The only other character of note is Smithers, played by Rick Foucheux. He brings out the cold, calculating nature of the man. Smithers is an unlikable character, reveling in the misfortune of Jones and Foucheux more than holds his own beside Thompson.
O’Neill’s play is fascinating, despite the things that make it difficult for modern audiences, the racist dialogue particularly; it was ground breaking when first produced and provided the first major stage role for a black actor, launching Paul Robesons early stage career. For fans of ONeill’s work, this staging provides a rare chance to see the play as the author intended.
If the audience come armed with this knowledge then the play makes fascinating viewing, digging deep into issues of power and its many misuses in a way that is still relevant. Thompson’s performance is rich and rewarding and utterly captivating and this is what leaves the deepest impression.