That a play written in 1920 should still feel entirely fresh and relevant 85 years later is either the sign of a fine drama, or of a failure of the human race to progress. In the case of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, both statements are true.
When Brutus Jones (Paterson Joseph) swaggers muscularly into the Gate Theatre in West London, revealing within seconds the nature of his regime, built entirely on brutality and bombast, recent parallels are obvious. Robert Mugabe sweeps into mind, then Ceascescu, Mobutu … the list could go on and on.
And as America struggles to find “leadership material” in Iraq, O’Neill’s play presents a society entirely corrupted by the exercise of absolute, violent power. There are no heroes here – it is the power of the Emperor’s own conscience that will really get to him.
The weasly, sliming Cockney Smithers – the dregs of empire, effectively played by Paul Wyett, will only stand by and watch, and loot whatever mean little trophies might come his way; while Lem (Yemi Ajibade), appearing first as a wise elder, reveals his own gullibility and weakness in his belief in the necessity of a silver bullet to kill the tyrant.
The design is a star in this production. In the narrow, claustrophobic pit, the Emperor can strut his stuff, show off what he imagines his power, in the opening scene along his strip of tawdry carpet, but this too is the claustrophobic forest into which he flees as the people who’ve finally rebelled after two years of exploitation use their drums to assemble a force to hunt him down.
Yet this is far more than about individual corruption. For while most of the scenes in which the Emperor confronts his past reflect his personal weakness and violence, the slave-selling scene is particularly effective in this production. The director, Thea Sharrock, floods the pit with bodies – the line of cowed, fearful slaves, the overdressed, frivolous purchasers flitting and flirting around them, a reminder that the issues here are far from personal.
It is easy to imagine the financial director asking: do you really need so many actors? Yet the power of the scene justifies the expense.
This is a tight production, 65 minutes of concentrated power and energy. It is hard to find a negative word to say about it.
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