A slab of theatrical expressionism presumably confined to dramatic history creates a minor sensation at London’s Gate Theater, which is capping its seasonlong immersion in the American repertoire with “The Emperor Jones.” Should this early work from Eugene O’Neill be seen on a regular basis? Probably not, since its surprises tend to play themselves out on a single viewing. But Thea Sharrock’s high-adrenalin staging is essential viewing, and not just for keepers of the O’Neill canon. Imagine “Macbeth” rewritten for an abject West Indian warlord, and you get some idea of the production’s fraught power.
“The Emperor Jones” has staked its claim in 20th-century drama as the first American play to reach Broadway with a racially integrated cast. (Alexander Woollcott’s New York Times review in 1920 speaks in awestruck tones of leading man Charles S. Gilpin being “a negro.”) Race aside, the play remains no less singular in structural terms. A series of scenic fragments with abundant backstory but little actual plot, the writing dips in and out of a hallucinatory fervor from which Gate a.d. Sharrock has taken her cue.
After the bourgeois banality of the West End “Heroes,” which she directed, Sharrock has turned to O’Neill’s hourlong play like a ravenous traveler arriving at a sudden banquet. Transformation is all but inevitable at this address (venue seats only 65), but few reappraisals of the space have been as purely beautiful as Richard Hudson’s design. Though the play refers to the “stinking woods” in which Brutus Jones (Paterson Joseph), the Emperor, is sent reeling, Hudson offers a sunken rectangular sandpit marked by a long, brightly patterned carpet that gets rolled up and taken away as the Emperor’s torment intensifies.
From the ceiling hang seven fans that dip and rise again as if on surveillance duty, leaving Adam Silverman’s lighting to illuminate a pathway for the Emperor all its own — a road, clearly, leading to mental ruin. The ambient effects include a ceaseless drumroll that quickly pricks the Emperor’s anguished conscience and continues, disquietingly, throughout the play. (The ace sound designer is Gregory Clarke.)
The effect is an evening of total theater in the service of writing that can use an embellishment or two. Heard in isolation, much of O’Neill’s language indulges the same black patois from the roughly contemporaneous “Show Boat.” Rare is the verb — and even noun (“feets”) — that doesn’t end with an s: “Maybe I does kill one white man; maybe I goes to jail.”
But that’s the play, take it or leave it, into which Sharrock & Co. hurtle the audience headlong, the Emperor stripping himself of vestments, title and even sanity on his journey from a palace of his own invention to a “bleeding tomb.” Thrown at nightfall into a forest whose darkness heightens memories of the murder he has committed back home, this Brutus ends up incarnating humankind at its most self-aware and brutish, his coat little more than a straitjacket for a soul that won’t be appeased. (The recent one-man “Macbeth,” with Stephen Dillane, employed the exact same image.)
Like Macbeth, the Emperor receives ghostly visitations, though “Jones” emphatically is no one-man show. The mesh encircling the set allows in numerous players, including Paul Wyett as a dastardly Cockney who sounds, against the odds, as if he were preparing for a revival of “My Fair Lady” — “cor blimey” and “bloomin'” come trippingly from his lips. And as if in homage to a West End musical, O’Neill’s slave auction is here amply populated, the space suddenly flooding with nearly as many performers as there are spectators surveying the action.
But the evening ultimately stands or falls by the crucial occupancy of a role played by Paul Robeson in the 1933 film: the self-proclaimed Baptist obsessed with a “silver bullet.” Marking his progress from “stowaway to emperor in two years,” Brutus is encountered in a vertiginous freefall from which thesp Joseph, eyes ablaze, wrings every last sweaty drop.
A fevered dream turned nightmare, the play is as phantasmagoric as later O’Neill is tethered to an (often fogbound) sense of place. And if as rhetoric it sometimes seems naive, you’re unlikely to encounter “The Emperor Jones” anywhere soon in a production this smart.