In a time of job losses and economic uncertainly, it is easy to see how The Hairy Ape, a play that is basically a rant against the ruling classes, has resurfaced. Eugene O’Neill is perhaps one of the few playwrights of the early twentieth century who experienced ‘how the other half live’ from both perspectives. Having started his adult life in a state of self-induced destitution, by the age of 26 he was studying at Harvard. This life of extremes is very apparent in his play, exploring the difficulties of class and how we respond to our human need to belong. Through the characters of Yank, a working class man employed as a ship’s fireman, and Mildred, the spoilt daughter of the ship’s owner who is out to help the poor, we see how they are both victimised by social class.
The Southwark Playhouse, almost hidden under the London Bridge train lines, could not have been a better choice of theatre for a play such as The Hairy Ape. The now converted workshop, with its exposed brickwork and rather dank feel, lends itself well to the play, set in New York during the early 1920s. Much credit must go to Richard Howell (lighting) and Jean Chan (set and costume) for creating a space that was bold and supple, flowing from below deck to the breezy promenade and demanding your attention while doing so.
The Hairy Ape is very much a play of contrasts: rich/poor, light/dark, animal/human. Throughout the play, Director Kate Budgen is not shy of exploring these in a multitude of ways. The darkly lit, claustrophobic scenes of the ship’s under-belly stand in stark contrast to the bright, well-lit, airy world that Mildred inhabits. The animalistic movements of the men who power the ship come to a terrific climax in a section of highly-stylised choreography that makes the appearance of the white-clad Mildred below deck seem almost ethereal.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout the play that it was concentrating too much on hammering home the theme of class difference than letting the language of the play and the characters themselves talk to the audience. Using dummy heads on sticks to represent how humans have evolved to become things that are artificial seemed a little gimmicky in its attempts to make us think about matters of class. This almost Brechtian approach drew attention away from some very striking performances. Bill Ward’s Yank was brilliant, portraying a physically impressive man whose sudden struggle with class awareness turns him into what Mildred sees him as, an ape. However, against this, Emma King’s Mildred was too weak and child-like; though O’Neill wants us to see them both as victims of their class we do not feel any sympathy towards her whatsoever.
It is a play with a lot of promise that has not quite achieved what it set out to do. While visually it was very striking – an attack on the senses – there was something lacking. Something that is just waiting to be let out of what could be a great play.
The Hairy Ape is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photography by Jane Hobson.