Review – The Emperor Jones, National Theatre

Monday 10 September 2007

p60jones_468x466.jpgAndrew would have loved this one.

The play that launched Eugene O’Neill’s career The Emperor Jones turned into a music and dance spectacle with a multi-cultural cast and all over without an interval in a mere 70 minutes.

Where could Andrew have been? Well, as regular readers will know, since seeing the abysmal Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory Andrew’s been inspired to do a little of his own flying solo. Only last Thursday he inveigled himself to join a posse of fellow theatrical bloggers at The Bacchae without so much as a nod to poor Phil who was desperate to see Alan Cumming’s bottom for the nth time.

So claiming he was “off on a hen party to Blackpool”, (he wasn’t of course, it was all in his head) Phil found himself seated in the stalls of a packed matinee at the Olivier Theatre with consummate wannabe Whinger Mark II – remember him, the only one to be underwhelmed by All About My Mother at the Old Vic? Even before taking their seats Mark II was already off on one, noting it was “like visiting day at the old folks home”. Now the Whingers do not endorse “isms” (sexism, racism, ageism) by any stretch of their limited imaginations, but Phil had forgotten what matinees at the National were like and was glad he’d had his pink rinse reapplied and felt very much at home.

Even better, sitting directly across the aisle sat pensioner Sir Tom Stoppard with Phil’s fellow travelling compaion and soon-to be pensioner Sinead Cusack. With Tom’s Rock ‘n’ Roll about to transfer to Broadway with Cusack in the cast, Phil would have expected them to be deep in rehearsals, but at a mere 70 minutes, perhaps it’s not too much time out of their day.

Anyhoo back to The Emperor Jones. What a queer old fish this one turned out to be. Brutus Jones (Patterson Joseph) is a southern American ex-con who has wormed his way to create a dictatorship on a West Indian island. Unfortunately for Jones the natives are getting restless and he’s forced to flee into the forest with only a single silver bullet as his means of eternal escape. Jones the oppressed has become the oppressor and the locals have had enough of him. He’s convinced them that he can only be killed by this special bullet and will finish himself off if they catch up with him.

This production by Thea Sharrock was first staged at the tiny Gate Theatre in 2005 with Joseph in the title role, now staged in thesmalldrum.jpg vast spaces of the Olivier it’s obviously been re-imagined. Starting more or less as a duologue, then becoming a monologue it then ditches dialogue almost completely and becomes spectacle. The stage suddenly becomes packed with over 50 performers, (Phil counted them – not a good sign) in full period costume. (The Gate only managed 21, what a crush that must have been.) How Andrew would have loved all those hooped skirts, wigs, bonnets and corsets, it would have been his chance to feel at home. Add to this excellent live music by the wonderfully named Sister Bliss, native dancing, fire, smoke and the constant banging of tom-toms, Phil is considering cancelling his trip to the Congo and booking a season ticket for TEJ.

Patterson Joseph is, as ever, excellent, charismatic and supremely physical, with a fine line in mime. (“Mime? Good God that was a narrow escape – Andrew). As he descends into madness (Jones, not Andrew – he’s there already) he races round the stage bumping into imaginary branches, swotting mosquitoes and digging desperately for food. Note, this is mine, no food was produced in this production, so no additions for Phil’s food-on-stage thesis. Joseph sweats profusely, Phil hadn’t seen this much perspiration since Andrew’s latest rush to the bar at last orders.

Jones has flash backs in his fevered head and sees scenes of slavery. Phil was reminded of his own whinging shackles and vowed to go it alone more often. Especially to matinees where the constant sound of mobiles going off and Sir Tom rattling his National Theatre bookshop bag added a special cacophony to the atmosphere. Phil would have loved to look in that bag, had Stoppard been buying his own play texts to bump up sales?

There’s also extensive use of the word “n****r”, which presumably is why it’s rarely performed. It’s hard to shock these days but it does make you wince, it’s also the very last word of the play. But it’s all in context of course, or are they just cashing in on the success of Big Brother?

It’s strangely mesmerising, but also puzzling. What do these actors who are produced for 5 minutes and then walk off do between their appearances at about 3 and 8.30pm? How much does it cost to have a cast of 50 plus 5 live musicians? Nick Hytner loves adding a bit of frou-frou to his productions, did he present Thea Sharrock with an open cheque? Phil was thrilled seeing so many people on a stage used to such redundant effect and was suddenly transported back to the Whingers’ outing to Lord of the Rings – The Musical!

As Phil and Mark II left at the end, (did he mention it lasted a mere 70 minutes?) They overheard a couple musing, very much in the spirit of the Whingers.

Her: No wonder they can’t afford to put plays on anymore, when they’ve got all the money.

Him: Yes there were 50 of them, I counted.

Footnote: Phil tried to check his Dorothy bag into the Lyttelton Theatre’s cloakroom, but forced to confess he was seeing The Emperor Jones they wouldn’t take it.

Cloakroom: There will only be one person on duty. (Presumably the rest are swelling the cast in the Olivier)

Phil: But at ten past three (TEJ‘s finishing time) there will be no one collecting their bags as they’ll all be in the Lyttelton?

Cloakroom: Yes but with only one person on duty there will be a queue.

Phil: There will be at the Olivier cloakroom, but if you’re not taking bags for the Olivier there won’t be any queue here?

Cloakroom: Well we’ve already taken a few for the Olivier.

Phil: So you won’t take my bag?

Cloakroom: No.

7 Responses to “Review – The Emperor Jones, National Theatre”

  1. Mark t Says:

    nft cloakroom – the trick is to remember which production is on at which auditorium, and “fudge the truth” about which show you are seeing..

    emperor jones – we saw it on saturday evening, lovely to be able to go for a meal afterwards 😉

    sounds like you had the pensioners’ matinee, the evening crowd was very young and, pleasingly for the NFT, quite ethnically mixed – there was a queue for returns as well.


  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    The trouble is, father, I cannot tell a lie. At the matinee there was barely any ethic mix in the auditorium, but isn’t it nice that Eugene could knock off a such a short play?

  3. Hannah Says:

    I do believe I was at the same matinee. To think, so close to a whinger. And Tom Stoppard I suppose, but that isnt as exciting.

    I enjoyed it, but being on the front row actually got a bit of Patterson Joseph’s sweat fly towards me, which was mildly unpleasant slash exciting.

    And I agree about the age thing, I think I was the only one on my row who had not met Eugene O’Neill personally.

    A pleasure to read your review as ever.


  4. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Sweat? You lucky thing..I usually just get that sitting next to Andrew.
    And to think we were sitting so close to Hannah..who knew? Beats a Stoppard and a Cusack anyday.

  5. Eve Says:

    Having encountered one in the pub last night, all the extras are officially ‘supernumaries’ and paid only about £20 a night. So it’s possibly not as expensive as it looks.

    But it did make me laugh when they all trooped on doing a lot of ‘crowd’ acting. Half-expected to see French and Saunders in the back row.

    Boys, you should pester the National’s casting department and let you go on one evening….

  6. Eve – £20 a night??? What a bargain! Is that even legal? It also begs the question “why doesn’t every production have 50 people in it?” It would certainly liven things up and help to evoke a sense of value for money.

  7. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Andrew would do it without payment, just to get into a hoop skirt, in fact he’d gladly pay £20 for the experience..

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