Posts Tagged ‘Emperor Jones’

American playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this expressionistic play in 1928, not long after Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic masterpiece Emperor Jones. It was based on a real murder case, and its premiere provided Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. I first saw it in its last London outing twenty-five years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Lyttleton Theatre. I thought then, as I do now, that it must have been way ahead of its time 90 years ago. It’s feminist aesthetic and focus on mental health means it still resonates today.

In ten scenes over ninety minutes we follow our protagonist – ‘young woman’ – doing what society expects of her, from the office job she doesn’t like, or do well, to marriage to the boss who repels her and the birth of the child she struggles to bond with, before she turns and is propelled to an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Each scene in Natalie Abrahami’s production starts by the parting of screens to reveal locations which are mirrored diagonally above. Miriam Buether’s clever design is accompanied by a brooding mechanical soundscape from Ben & Max Ringham and striking lighting by Jack Knowles. The scene changes are a bit slow, but its an immersive experience nonetheless, though I did find myself admiring the stagecraft and performances at the expense of emotional engagement with the story.

Elizabeth Berrington is hugely impressive in the lead role, at first in fear of just about everything, growing enough confidence to betray her husband Jones, played well, with period behaviour, by Jonathan Livingstone. In a supporting cast of ten, there is an excellent cameo from Denise Black as Helen’s mother.

Treadwelll wrote many more plays, with a diverse range of themes and styles, but this is just about the only one that’s ever been revived. She found it increasingly difficult to get her work produced, and many remained unpublished. Neglected in a man’s world it seems, which makes it even more timely today. It would be good to see more of them.

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Soon after this Eugene O’Neill play started, I was thinking how experimental it was; how different to all his other plays. Then I remembered Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and realised what an experimental playwright he really was – though this is still very different, largely because of the extensive use of soliloquies, where the actors switch from talking to each other to talking direct to the audience.

Nina loses Gordon, the love of her life, before they’ve got going, when he goes to war and never returns. Family friend Charles is obsessed with her, but she choses doctor Edmund to impregnate her and hapless Sam to marry her & bring up baby Gordon with her, with the on-off affair with Edmund continuing. When Gordon grows up and Sam dies, she’s faced with choosing between Charles and Edmund again.

This must have been radical stuff in 1928, when it ran five hours. It’s pretty radical 85 years later, though more because the soliloquies still make it original. It’s mercifully now just over three hours; the first half is still overlong, but it redeems itself in the second. I couldn’t make my mind up if the production was sending it up a bit, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not an entirely satisfying evening, but it is an intriguing one.

In as fine a set of performances as you’d wish for, Anne-Marie Duff shines as complicated new woman Nina, but she’s well matched by a superb turn from Charles Edwards as, well, Charles, and a lovely characterisation of Sam by Jason Watkins. American Darren Pettie’s UK debut is certainly an auspicious one; his performance as Edmund is very compelling. Soutra Gilmour’s terrific design is a Frank Lloyd Wright style home in the first act and transforms cleverly from a NYC 5th Avenue apartment to a boat to a pier-side in the second.

If only they’d been even more radical with the scissors and trimmed another 20/30 minutes from the first half, it would have been a lot sharper. As it is, it’s a flawed but fascinating glimpse at a play that was clearly way ahead of its time and still seems original today.

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Well, I’ve been to the Olivier Theatre many times over the last 30 years, but it’s never felt like this. Designer Marina Draghici has done a great job bringing to it the essence of Fela’s Nigerian nightclub with giant banners & projections, corrugated iron and above all colour. You could hear the sound of the extraordinary band before you entered the theatre and when you did, the stage was full of dancers.

Fela’s story is a fascinating one, but its told here as a biographical monologue inside an afrobeat concert. There is really only one character, and that’s the crux of the problem with the show. You learn more about Fela’s life reading the programme and the show just adds the music and dancing – wonderful music and dancing (though in truth it does become a bit monotonous), but music and dancing alone don’t make a fully formed musical.

Sahr Ngaujah’s performance as Fela is mesmerizing, so much so that the talented supporting cast hardly get a look in. The band is absolutely brilliant, helped by  Robert Kaplowitz perfect sound design. There’s much to enjoy and it’s more than a jukebox musical, but there isn’t enough characterisation or narrative depth for a piece of musical theatre. Go for the music, colour and the energy of it all.

It doesn’t really need the NT – it could easily survive in the commercial sector – and the NT doesn’t need it – though this clearly does bring in a new audience, the NT has done much to bring in this audience before. It’s not the first time the Olivier stage has been full of black talent in recent years – Emperor Jones, Death & The Kings Horsemen and Welcome to Thebes. I think their resources would be better used nurturing and showcasing new British musical theatre, which they haven’t done since Jerry Springer – The Opera.

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