The Southwark Playhouse is perfect for any performance where claustrophobic conditions and atmosphere are a necessary factor. The Hairy Ape is just such a play - a tense storm by the legend that is Eugene O’Neill, and provides one of the best and seemingly simplistic sets I’ve seen this year. The space is convincingly transformed from the gloomy, cramped and dirty world of the engine room on a newly fangled (for 1922 anyway) ocean liner to the same ship’s deck, to a street in New York and to a dank and hopeless prison convincingly and inspiringly. Amongst these seamless scene changes, the ensemble cast tell the story of Yank (Bill Ward) and his female-inspired spiral into beastliness.
The play itself is no less inspiring but perhaps a bit lacking on the convincing part. Vital sentences are lost in the numerous dialects as actors – terrific as they were – slightly rush their lines. Eugene O’Neill is a master with words, so this was a big disappointment to my guest and I. This is not to say that they aren’t compelling: the energy and stamina of the actors is laudable as the engine room workers – led by the Hairy Ape himself, played by the superb Bill Ward – almost dance their way through the back-breaking task of keeping that engine running. The sweat and muscle are pleasing to the eye wherever you were sitting - I think some of the lads were hitting the gym in preparation, and I didn’t mind a bit!
Comedy offered a rare release from the drama, with a witty exchange between Lizzie Roper and Emma King early on and the delicately charming Mark Weinman’s Long, who’s one-liners and casual stupidity was heart-warming and never out of place. Weinman and Gary Lilburn’s portrayal of the apt storyteller Paddy were my highlights next to Ward’s dominating and powerful performance, providing an uncomfortable backdrop for his thundering ape.
Direction seemed strict and precise and rightly so considering the tight performance spaces the actors were given. Ward’s broad frame almost seemed too small for this narrow walkway and, given his obviously animalistic movements, I was very impressed at the enormity he managed to give his disheartened and desperate character. Kate Budgen had quite a task with a cast of 9 and a stage that seemed to be filled with just one of them. Richard Howell delivers a lighting script almost as twisted as the subject matter that shocks and deprives the audience’s ocular sense (in a good way). Ward’s darkened encounter with an actual ape is just as surreal and deplorable as it should be thanks to some clever performances from Ward and the lighting desk.
The Hairy Ape provides quality performances all around, but the play lost some of its oomph and I feel that is down to more than a couple of lost sentences and garbled replies. This play is not easily brilliant and this ensemble – including the creatives – very nearly grasps the straw of greatness. Nearly. While certainly worth the watch for the visual bravado and grand presentation, you might be left wondering what you’ve learned beyond the opening moment’s obvious class scrutinisation and labourer’s plights. A feast for the eyes and many a minute of shiny wonderfulness, but a little underwhelming, I’m sad to say.
New York City. 1922. Yank has spent his life shovelling coal on an ocean liner. Brutish, powerful and commanding, he knows where he belongs: in the stokehold. But when the daughter of a wealthy industrialist decides to slum it and see life below deck, Yank’s universe changes forever. Unable to forget the way she looked at him, Yank hits the booming streets of New York to seek revenge.
With unflinching theatrical force and explosive lyricism, Eugene O’Neill explores the tragedy of a forgotten voice and the perennial human need to belong.
Southwark Playhouse77-85 Newington Causeway
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 6BD
Please note that the Southwark Playhouse used to be at Shipwright Yard, Corner of Tooley St & Bermondsey St, but has now moved.
19:45 (matinees at 15:15 on Saturdays)