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A CurtainUp London Review
—Review of the Gate production by Lizzie Loveridge
Emperor Jones opens with the ex-Pullman porter congratulating himself to a seedy white man called Henry Smithers (Paul Wyett). Jones is telling how the mythology arose (that like a werewolf) he can only be killed by a silver bullet. He is laughing at, and exploiting the islanders by levying huge taxes so that he can live in luxury. "From stowaway to emperor in two years -- that's going some!" he brags. His behaviour emulates white rulers. When he rings the bell to summon servants all that can be heard is the buzz of a fly.
Jones escapes into the big forest where his past catches up with him. Back on the prison chain gang, he relives the murder of the man whose head he split open with a shovel. He is taken back to a slave auction where whites parade in top hats, sizing up the human merchandise. Finally in the most powerful of scenes he sees an African witch doctor dancing frenetically.
Thea Sharrock's production is exceptionally full of atmosphere. The venue is tiny and arranging the audience in single file around a high sided, rectangular pit of a stage creates a strange feeling that we are looking into a magic box. The floor is red sand with a runner of native mats; the emperor's throne is a chair with a leopard print cushion. The walls are lined with dark bamboo matting concealing trap doors. White ceiling fans hover above the action and gradually lower to create oppression and darker scenes are lit with bright blue or bright red lights, blue for night time, red for Africa. The sounds of the forest, the insects and later the tribal drumming are potent reference points.
Paul Wyett as the white working class colonial throws his weight around when the emperor is not there but cowers in his presence. Paterson Joseph's performance is a tour de force. When he first enters he is wild eyed and striking, talking in an accent from the Deep South and dressed in a military uniform trimmed with gold epaulettes, medals and leopard skin cuffs. His stage presence is simply breathtaking. As his confidence wanes he discards the outer trapping of his position and sometimes resorts to invoking Jesus, a remembrance of his Baptist roots. He flings himself against the bamboo walls as he recalls killing a man who was cheating at dice and then, in prison, killing a guard with a shovel. At this point, Brutus Jones' visions revert to those he would not remember, a slave market, a slave ship and finally back to the Africa Congo. Joseph convinces as we see his character disintegrate until he is covered in sweat and racked by nightmares.
For the auction, the set is suddenly crowded with the chattering classes in mid nineteenth century top hats and bonnets as they look over the purchase of proud African men and women who have survived the next most powerful scene. The sounds of creaking timbers, of the ocean, of screams of pain, herald that long journey from Africa to the Americas in a most evocative and moving way. Finally, Dwayne Barnaby dances, attired in a Witch Doctor's feathers and beads, in a vibrant celebration of African culture and freedom -- quite a contrast to the emperor that Jones has become. This dance finally brings the tormented Jones to his knees and he is ultimately captured by the islanders.
I am surprised that something written in the 1920s is as acceptable as it appears but Sharrock has cut some of the exaggerated Southern language to allow for more authenticity and less caricature. Joseph's performance and this experiential production deserve a wider audience than this 65 seat theatre can provide but where to stage it and not lose the arresting intimacy?
For more about Eugene O'Neill's work and links to reviews of his place, see CurtainUp's O'Neill Backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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