Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Short and Sweet (Well, Sort Of)
After a quiet bank holiday weekend focused mainly on flat-pack assemblage, I got back into the swing of things last night, heading over to the National for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s early work The Emperor Jones.
This particular production was first staged by Thea Sharrock in 2005 over at the teeny tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and appears to have been considerably re-jigged to fit the (much) larger performance space of the Olivier.
The excellent Paterson Joseph reprises his role as the self-declared ruler of a small West Indian island. He plays a black American prisoner who, having killed his prison guard and escaped across the water, talks the island inhabitants into becoming their Emperor. However they soon tire of his despotic rule and turn against him leaving him with little recourse but to flee into the forest, fearing for his life. As the sun beats down, he is forced to discard his Emperor-y accoutrements, to shed his finery (I did try and wedge a ‘new clothes’ reference in there, but I’m a bit lacking in glib this morning) until he is left completely diminished, half naked, sweat-slick and shaking. Joseph’s is, by necessity, both a charismatic and a very physical performance, he is constantly dashing and ducking across the stage, shoulder-rolling and hurling himself to the floor with considerable force as his character becomes increasingly paranoid and desperate, haunted by images of slavery and shadows of his past misdeeds.
Stripped of what was presumably a very claustrophobic setting at the Gate, Sharrock ensures that the play still has the requisite feverish intensity – a sense enhanced by the use of light, filtering it through a huge corrugated metal disc that is suspended from the ceiling (which rather reminded me, to a degree, both of the great orange sun sculpture they had in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall a while back and of the sweatbox scenes in films such as Bridge On The River Kwai). Some superb percussion added to the atmosphere of the piece, but the seeming need to fill this space, with stuff, with bodies, had its drawbacks, and I found the sudden influx of extras filing on stage for a slave auction scene rather unnecessary and detrimental to the overall mood.
Still, it’s a strong, intense, unusual production and I’m sure its 70 minute running time will please some people as it leaves ample time for a post-show glass of red on the National’s terrace. Good as it was, ultimately it really made me wish I'd seen that Gate production, I expect that really would have been something.