It's the story of Brutus Jones, an escaped slave who cons his way into the dictatorship of a small Caribbean island. The play starts just as he's about to be deposed - the cocky Jones flees into the forest, where he's made preparations for just such an eventuality. But nothing goes to plan, as he experiences nightmares and hallucinations from his past as a slave, wasting his precious bullets on ghosts and eventually going round in circles back to the people he conned with his tales of being invincible - now eager to put that to the test.
For over half of the running time (just over an hour in total) this may as well be a one-man show, and Joseph is fantastic, at times a funny and appealing monster, at others gripping as he falls apart. Most of the rest of the cast don't have much to do, apart from John Marquez, who seems to be trying on every accent on earth for size as Jones' sidekick Smithers. The production is a bit schizophrenic - the heart of it is in Joseph's central performance which remains vital and intimate despite the huge space, but director Thea Sharrock and designer Robin Don have also filled the stage with impressively lit sets and at some points a huge cast of extras for the dream sequences, which are truly nightmarish. For the most part the juxtaposition of intimacy and spectacle works, although by the penultimate hallucination when flames leap out of the stage as a witch-doctor dances you wonder exactly where Sharrock is going with this - she also, of course, directed Equus and I have to say I'm not convinced by her so far - she seems to get great performances out of her actors but I'm not sure about her ability to bring together a unifying theme in her productions.
Of course an awkward schizophrenia is part of the play itself: Eugene O'Neill was an early champion of black actors on the American stage and here he's written an excellent black antihero, but at the same time the use of the "n"-word is constant, and the fact that Jones devolves throughout the play until he's running around the jungle barefoot and shirtless has implications that are hard to ignore. But overall this is an interesting revival that raises pertinent issues about liberation and dictatorship. Sister Bliss also deserves a mention for her tribal-sounding music score, which is atmospheric and never intrusive.
The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 31st of October at the National Theatre's Olivier stage.