Michael Portillo - Thrill of the chase

Theatre - Hunting down a corrupt ruler creates a sinister study in fear, writes Michael Portillo

When The Emperor Jones first appeared in 1920, it was Eugene O'Neill's second play on Broadway that year and helped to mark his arrival as one of the outstanding American playwrights of the century. It is a work born of the expressionist era, with the vividness, primitivism and exaggeration typical of the period's literature and painting.

The play follows a black American convict, Brutus Jones, who escapes the chain gang and reaches a Caribbean island where he sets himself up as emperor, contemptuously ruling over the credulous population, who invest him with supernatural attributes. We join the action at the moment of Jones's fall from grace. The population has decided to take revenge for his corrupt rule. He will have to flee across desert and forest, while the war drums beat out the rhythm of hot pursuit.

The play is a study in fear. Jones passes from a superficial self-confidence about his prospects of survival, through all the stages of doubt to sheer terror. He is afflicted by visions from his past, on which he uses up most of his ammunition.

The tiny Gate Theatre stages the piece superbly, helped by an excellent design from Richard Hudson. The audience sits around a long rectangular pit in which Jones will be trapped. The pit's tall wicker sides with swing doors and flaps reminded me of a bullring. As death approaches, the dust flies up, as it does when a matador is completing his work. Eight old-fashioned ceiling fans above the pit help to create an impression of asphyxiating West Indies heat, even on a November evening in London. Later they descend to suggest the claustrophobic canopy of the forest.

The set allows seats for an audience of about only 60. There was a row when one patron arrived to find that there were no seats left, and complained loudly that he could not be expected to stand for 65 minutes. In his youth he had evidently not experienced Wagner without a seat!

Gregory Clarke's sound design is also remarkable. He gives us tiresome flies by day, cicadas in the evening and by night the terrifying noises that have no name. The beat of the drums is relentless and it intensifies as the chase hots up.

Dramatically this is a curious play. It opens with a longish and not very satisfactory dialogue between Smithers, a cockney trader (played by Paul Wyett) and the emperor. The Englishman has come to tell Jones that while he was sleeping his entourage slipped away into the forest. During his flight, Jones delivers a monologue that takes up most of the rest of the play. The other speaking parts share just a few lines between them.

But O'Neill poses a challenge to any theatre's budget. The play requires a large crowd who assemble for just one short scene: the auction of black slaves (another of Jones's hallucinations).

The Emperor Jones earned a place in the history of black emancipation as the first play to present an integrated black/white cast on Broadway, and the first to give the lead role to a black actor. O'Neill insisted on breaking the convention of white actors applying make-up to play black characters and gave the role to the black actor Charles Gilpin.

Paterson Joseph, as Jones, delivers an enjoyable performance: big, loud and energetic. During the course of the piece the emperor symbolically loses his clothes. Joseph begins magnificently arrayed in full military dress uniform, complete with spurs, fringed epaulettes, medals and gold braid, somewhat incongruously set off by a panama hat.

He has magnificent swank, maintaining first that there is nothing unusual about the disappearance of his subjects and thereafter that none the less he can make a clean getaway.

Joseph handles the emperor's gradual deterioration well, injecting lots of humour into the earliest stages of decline when Jones finds his own welling fears laughable.

Later, his terror is credible. He hurls himself around the arena like a wounded beast, pouring sweat, and handles the extraordinary demands of the long monologue well.

Another of the performances worth noting is that of Dwayne Barnaby, who takes to the stage and kicks up the sand with a terrifying display as the witch doctor.

The director, Thea Sharrock, has overcome most of the play's manifest difficulties well. In a piece that might easily descend into hysteria, her rigour keeps the performances precise.

The Emperor Jones should earn a place in any index of works about fear. As an example of expressionism's impact on O'Neill it is certainly interesting, and given its milestone status in the racial integration of theatre in America, it is well worth performing.

This small and adaptable theatre in Notting Hill provides the piece with a highly effective setting.

Booking on 020 7229 0706 to 17 December

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The next holocaust