Rise and fall of a man doomed by slavery

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At the beginning of Eugene O’Neill’s powerful, troubling 1920 play, the self-styled “Emperor” Jones boasts that he rose from “stowaway to emperor in two years”. His descent is even swifter: he travels from smug dictator to cowering wretch in little over an hour of stage time. And his demise is painful to watch.

Brutus Jones is black, an ex-convict who has managed to escape US law and set himself up as ruler of a small Caribbean island. But when the islanders rebel against his exploitative laws, he flees.

His escape founders in the dense forest, however. He is assailed by spectres, first from his own past and then from a communal past: he finds himself on a chain- gang, for sale in a slave market, shackled on a slave ship.

Driven mad by his own conscience and by the torments of his ancestors, he disintegrates before our eyes. Jones, having tried to beat white racists at their own game, is consumed by the import of the values he has espoused and by his people’s suffering.

It is a bold, bold play. O’Neill uses the ambiguity of expressionist drama to create a shattering psychological journey, a compacted history of African-American experience and an analysis of the corrosive nature of greed.

At London’s tiny Gate Theatre two years ago, Thea Sharrock seized on this ambiguity to create a claustrophobic intensity that trapped the audience with Jones in his terrifying descent into madness.

Now, in a move that matches the audacity of the drama, she revives the production for the vast stage of the Olivier, a space that is to the Gate what a jumbo jet is to a hang-glider.

There are gains and there are losses. The move emphasises the play’s scope and historical daring. And Sharrock embraces the huge arena with flair, filling the stage with Jones’s hallucinatory visions to disturbing effect.

It is shocking to see a black chain-gang whipped by a white overseer in the centre of the Olivier stage. It is deeply unsettling to hear the islanders derided, repeatedly, by both Jones and his white sidekick as “black trash” and “bush niggers”. The words seem to ricochet round the space like bullets.

Robin Don’s simple, eloquent set frames the action, beginning with a gilded, corrugated iron shack that serves as Jones’s palace and evolving into an oppressive tangle of rusty metal that lowers over his head.

But some of the play’s impact is, ironically, diluted by the space and by the need to choreograph the hallucinations.

When a crowd of white slave traders descend on the stage they introduce an element of costume drama that is unhelpful, distancing us from Jones’s pain. And distance is the difficulty: we don’t have to live Jones’s torment with him; we watch from afar. The clumsy aspects of the script are also exposed here.

What remains constant is Paterson Joseph’s brilliant account of Jones. Joseph takes on the scale of the role and the stage in a performance that must rank as one of the best of the year.

He makes Jones both villain and victim. At the outset he swaggers about in his uniform, oozing the charm of the conman and the unpredictability of the unstable dictator.

Like Richard III, he revels in his own cynicism, explaining how he conceived his money-making plan by listening to the talk of the “white quality” folk.

But on the run, he gives his man warmth and wit, so that his final disintegration into abject despair is the more moving.

It is a stunning performance that finds both the humanity and the symbolic import of the play.

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