Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape is an odd little gem. Premiering in New York in 1922, the play deals with the divide that separates the upper classes with ‘them below’, and metaphorically cages the working classes in their own world, characterised by prejudice, abhorrence, and limitations.
Set aboard a transatlantic liner, this Cartwright Productions and Creature of London’s revival at the Southwark Playhouse gives the fire stokers a large, fearsome aspect, who rally against their position and provide a jarring contrast to the grossly stereotyped upper class characters.
The firemen, with Yank (Bill Ward) at the forefront, glorify their own roles within the ship describing themselves as the force and speed behind the liner. The creation of a tightly-knit world of alliance, shutting out all those “who don’t belong”, jollies and heartens these stokers as they carry out their back-breaking work. Of course, the presence of an upper class female, Mildred (Emma King), in their dirty, very masculine world, sparks the catalyst for the dilemma that Yank goes on to face - the juxtaposition between his pride and self-hate - and eventually leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and his demise into animalism.
It is no wonder that Eugene O’Neill is considered the first great American playwright and has been lauded with Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his dramatic literature. The text is surreal and superb. Bill Ward as Yank particularly embraces O’Neill’s language, and becomes mesmerising towards the end of the play.
Kate Budgen’s direction is often slick and creative; the stokehole scene which evokes the relentless heat and roar of the transatlantic liner’s coal engine fire is particularly effective, with atmospheric fiery lighting, choreographed actions amongst the lads, and the sounds of shovelling, crackling and thundering which together create the image of Hell itself.
However, the echoing acoustics of the venue often render some of the ensemble scenes inaudible. Whilst effective in creating a mood or atmosphere, the sheer volume of noise can enshroud some of the dialogue, and a peppering of dubious accents adds to the confusion of some scenes.
Notwithstanding, this production is worth seeing for Ward’s performance; his animalistic characterisation and sheer presence is dazzling, successfully driving the play to the finish line.