This, without doubt, is the mother of all transfers. Eighteen months ago, director Thea Sharrock and designer Richard Hudson took out all 64 seats at the tiny Gate Theater to revive Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” with auds staring down onto the action staged in a small sweaty pit. Now Sharrock has changed designer and reconceived her production for the Olivier, a totally dissimilar, 1,167-seat amphitheater at the National. Despite sequences of thrilling stagecraft, what the presentation gains in immensity it loses in intensity.
In lieu of developed plot, the play simply sets up and then gradually destroys Brutus Jones (Paterson Joseph), a vicious black dictator of a small Caribbean island, who, emulating white methods, has gone “from stowaway to emperor in two years — that’s going some.”
The galvanizing force behind Sharrock’s production remains Joseph’s central tour de force.
All flashing eyes and serpentine smile, the actor adds depth to his previously vivid work by pacing himself more carefully. The vast scale of the space allows him to begin with a lovely, expansive air of relaxation. In sharply spurred boots and a cream uniform edged in scarlet with gold epaulettes, he snaps the brim of a panama hat, strutting and preening with all the malevolent swagger of a supreme despot.
Warned in the opening scene by mean-minded Smithers (alternately cringing and callous John Marquez) of a popular uprising against him, Jones pragmatically cuts his losses. But fleeing into the woods, he is confronted by his demons. Over an increasingly headlong 70 minutes, Joseph memorably conveys the hysterical unraveling of Jones’ life and mind with increasing ferocity.
The interplay between Marquez and Paterson keeps that opening scene as taut as O’Neill’s dated dialogue will allow. But both play and production come to real dramatic life only with the emperor’s escape.
Designer Robin Don’s gleaming, gilded shack of a palace flies out, to be replaced by an oppressive, giant overhanging disc of corrugated metal, pierced by lighting designer Neil Austin with shafts of light. Austin, indeed, joins Joseph as the twin star of the production, ironically illustrating an apocalyptic journey into a heart of darkness via his magisterial use of bright light.
Austin not only picks Jones out with a follow-spot in contrast with ever-steelier nightlight chilling the engulfing forest, he further demonizes the character via starkly angled beams from the footlights. As Jones’ visions become more fevered, the haze-filled air turns from caustic orange to bloody scarlet, defining but never saturating the sinister mood.
Jones’ increasingly horrified visions of his past are presented in symbolic fashion. The chain gang from which he escaped is portrayed with slow, stylized choreography. The terrified present is made potent with the leaping danger of the tribe’s witch doctor.
The atmosphere is further pumped up by the production’s sound and musical fury. Gregory Clarke’s sound design adds tension via a distant heartbeat-like drum riff, powerfully built upon by composer Sister Bliss’ battery of pulse-quickening tuned and untuned percussion effects from five musicians perched high on either side of the action.
Although Sharrock has the luxury of 39 extras, her staging of the slave auction is oddly lackluster. Elsewhere, however, her marshaling of dazzling resources is considerably more exacting and driven than in her recent production of “Equus.”
Nevertheless, the grand scale of this realization arguably remains in opposition with the play’s essence. As Sharrock’s first staging (and the Wooster Group’s more radical interpretation) proved, the play is an internalized drama that’s actually stronger when staged in claustrophobic conditions unavailable on this scale.
The now-controversial absence of positive images in the drama’s groundbreaking portrayal of racial history makes it an unlikely candidate for revival. But Joseph’s enthralling, powerhouse performance and the bravura high points of Sharrock’s production make a powerful case for the National playing its history card with a vengeance.
The production’s flawed conception notwithstanding, so much stagecraft made available as part of the £10 ($20.18) Travelex season makes this visceral show one of the theatrical bargains of the year.