Whilst visiting a Caribbean island about 100 years ago, Brutus Jones, an African American train driver, some how ends up emperor of the island’s native tribe. His reign is brutal, so Jones knows it will eventually end. Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 The Emperor Jones begins with Jones’ initially relaxed attempt at escape from the uprising citizens, and inevitable guilty descent into the madness of a Shakespearian villain. The script is entirely spoken by Jones, barring the first and last scenes, with his madness peppered with ghosts that won’t let him rest in the darkness of the island’s woods.
The ensemble cast add variation with movement, dance and music, breaking up the lengthy monologue that comprises most of the play. The Afro-Caribbean style dancing and ritual bowing designed by movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell complement the set of heavy, distressed drapes that become a throne room, forest and road. The dance and movement plays a vital role in determining the setting, as the script largely neglects this. The time period is also ignored in the text, but also smartly indicated with generic peasant costumes by Sorcha Corcoran. Director Ursula Campbell effectively unites the design elements, rounding it off with Fasier Milroy’s dark sound and lighting.
It’s an interesting play choice for Black History Month considering how unlikeable the title role is, but shows episodes from African-American history in Jones’ hallucinations, and can provide some insight into Caribbean island life. What is also worth considering is that The Emperor Jones was written by a white man prior to US integration and features a black leading man who speaks in the vernacular of the slave generations, but O’Neill was the son of Irish immigrants, a nationality on the receiving end of much discrimination. Though initial pathos towards Jones is impossible, there is room for it to develop over the course of his collapse. O’Neill’s script is similarly wordy and slow to develop tension, not gathering momentum until roughly half way through. It employs several different performance styles including early realism that although experimental at the time of writing, feels dated now.
RSC, National and Globe veteran Mark Springer is egotist Brutus Jones. His arrogance, written into the script, takes a long time to break down; this limits Springer’s range until he starts to lose his mind after which he splendidly falls apart. His second in command, Smithers (Matthew McFetridge), is the bearded manipulator that keeps his cards close to his chest when advising Jones of the people’s revolt. The rest of the cast who form an ensemble are good, but underused.
The issue with The Emperor Jones isn’t the production in this case, but the script itself. Despite considered design and production elements, it becomes clear why this play is rarely produced in the UK. It has little relevant to modern British society and Jones’ narcissism, whilst no doubt fun to play, is much less fun to watch and drags on for too long.
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