The Emperor Jones, Lost Theatre

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 compliment 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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Kate, Greenwich Theatre, for remotegoat

They say all girls love a man in uniform. The young women in 1940 Reykjavik are no different. They certainly enjoy the company of the young British lads occupying the city to protect them from the Germans. The rest of the city exploits the financial benefits of a 25,000-strong population increase with money to spend and no fear of imminent attack. The war is particularly prosperous for husband and wife Julia and David, their daughter Selma and niece Kate. David runs a kiosk selling cigarettes to the boys, Julia mends their uniforms, Kate helps with the kiosk and Selma…well, she has sex with soldiers for money.

This production uses Brechtian staging, a capella singing, and two languages to share the wartime ups and downs of ingénue Kate (Rianna Dearden) after her move to the big city. She begins bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of countryside innocence. After becoming embroiled in her cynical cousin Selma’s (Olivia Hirst) secretive exploits, experiencing love, loss and sexual assault, Kate quietly, but sadly, matures. The girlish enthusiasm and wonder is gone. Selma does not have such an extreme emotional journey, but must face the consequences of her actions and discover they affect her family as well as her. Life starts out swimmingly, full of good intentions, but eventually collapses under the pressures of wartime.

Dearden’s and Hirst’s performances strikingly contrast each other, exploring the complexities of a close familial relationship similar to that of siblings. Mother Julia (Anna Nicholson), envious of the girls’ youth, encourages them to take up with the soldiers. Father David (Chris Woodley) tries to keep the family together and make a good living from his business endeavors. Fifth performer Alex Dowding plays several soldier characters, including Kate’s boyfriend, Rob. Despite the serious subject matter, Dowding skillfully uses comedy multirolling akin to that in the West End’s “39 Steps.” Woodley also multiroles as neighbour Benni, who is in love with Selma and ruthlessly tries to claim her.

Using bare-bones set and lighting emphasizes the performances and the characters’ relationships. Props are used sparingly, but effectively. Bits of paper are snow, a wooden crate is the kiosk and a sofa, and a leaf blower comically captures the constant wind in wintertime Reykjavik. The actors never leave the stage; they hand each other costume pieces, props and operate the leaf blower whenever a door opens or the characters are outside.

The play’s energy is excited, anticipatory and high-paced. This could be slowed down more in moments of high emotion in order to have a stronger effect, but it is a minor issue. The performance runs for an hour but certainly has scope for development into a full-length piece of theatre.The performances are excellent and energetic, but the parental characters would have benefited being played by older actors.

Lost Watch certainly is certainly a company to follow. “Kate” is an excellent example of new writing in fringe theatre using confident performances, a clever use of space and imaginative storytelling of unique subject matter.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

Reposted from