I recently re-read the James Bond novel Live And Let Die, in which Ian Fleming accidentally reminds modern readers of the horrifying extent of casual racism among the dominant orders less than a lifetime ago. Eugene O'Neill's early, expressionistic one-act drama The Emperor Jones (1920) offers a similar inadvertent lesson. But at least O'Neill is even-handed in his deficiencies: just as his protagonist Brutus Jones talks in an exaggerated deep-South patois, so Jones's principal interlocutor, the trader Smithers, is so archetypally Cockney that for some time I wondered whether actor Paul Wyett was deliberately hamming up his accent to match the calibre of the script.
As Jones blunders through the jungle on a Caribbean island statelet, fleeing from the natives he has hoodwinked into establishing him as their ruler, he encounters various visions from both his individual and his collective past: a former comrade he had murdered, a 19th-century American slave auction, an African witch-doctor. As he fires off the five lead bullets in his revolver to banish the "haunts", he is simultaneously expending all his psychological resources; ultimately, all he has left is a single silver bullet (a symbol of his myth-making to the islanders) which he had been saving for himself, and which thus symbolises his own constructed identity.
The play is a vehicle for a commanding black actor, and Paterson Joseph has both the skill and the magnetism to fill the bill. But he is thwarted by Richard Hudson's design for Thea Sharrock's production. The tiny Gate space is once again remade: the audience peers from above into a long, narrow, sandy-floored enclosure somewhere between a stockade and a wild animal run. But it hems in Jones, and thus Joseph, as well, so that neither character nor actor can manage the necessary expansiveness. Moreover, the play's message in the 21st century is unclear. In Smithers' changing sides to serve his own interests we may discern superpowers' keenness to back regime change for commercial as much as ethical reasons. But the subtext of Jones's own downfall seems to be "know your place", a confusingly reactionary signal. Sharrock evokes an intense atmosphere for the hour of the play, but to no easily intelligible end.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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