Saturday 19 May 2012

The Hairy Ape @ Southwark Playhouse

The plight of the outsider was a major theme in the works of American playwright Eugene O'Neill and is especially prevalent in his 1922 play The Hairy Ape.  It focuses on a man known only as Yank who represents the oppressed working class.  He begins working as a hard labouring fireman on a cruise ship, but upon landing ashore he is unable to integrate into life in New York.  Haunted by the words of a young woman who labels him a "hairy ape" when she sees his barbaric, animalistic behaviour on the ship, Yank eventually finds solace with a gorilla in the city zoo.

The male ensemble showed a display of strength and machismo in a visceral and powerful performance.  Sweat and grime covered them as they bravely took on a myriad of roles, accents and costume changes.  Moments such as the choreographed unison coal shovelling were imbued with raw power.  At the centre was Bill Ward as Yank, whose physicality suited the beastly behaviour of the character.  However, whether from the acoustics of the theatrical space, a lack of annunciation or a mixture of the two, the dialogue was a little difficult to comprehend, losing some of the intricacies of the narrative.

The production itself, though, offered a truly nightmarish vision of New York, culminating in a tragic and horrifying climax taking place in pitch darkness.  The use of traverse staging gave the impression of the ship's bow, a steaming grate in the centre suggesting diabolical heat.  The sound and lighting designs were especially effective in creating a sense of space and set.  For the cruise ship, deep reds created the fiery blaze of the coal fire, accompanied by an almost constant machine-like throbbing hum that echoed around the yawning brick cavern of the Playhouse.  The final scene in the zoo, meanwhile, took place in stifling darkness as Yank's isolation took hold.  This amounted to a truly expressionist piece of theatre.  Though the plot did lack some clarity, this was a well-paced production of real intensity and frightening atmosphere.


Watch: The Hairy Ape runs from 16th May to 9th June.