Southwark Playhouse, London
The Hairy Ape is one of O’Neill’s full-length plays (interestingly presented in one act) that expresses his social concern with the oppressed working class.
It centres around Yank (Bill Ward), who works in the belly of a steam liner leading a group of brutish men who spend their working hours shovelling coal into the ship’s engine and their spare time playing cards and drinking.
Above deck, Mildred Douglas (Emma King) a millionaire’s daughter, is having a moment of crisis about her place in life and, in some attempt to better understand more about the world around her, ventures down to see ‘how the other half’ live. So shocked is she on being confronted with Yank and his team she calls him ‘a filthy beast’ and, in this moment, triggers-off a deep crisis of identity in Yank.
This is a powerful production; the simple, yet dramatic staging works remarkably well. The cast, overall, give remarkable performances but, oddly, are more impactful when they’re not the focus of the scene. The failing of the source text primarily drives this: it seems to revolve around lot of deep and angry monologues that are shouted at us.
This really is a very noisy production and most of the dialogue is screamed at the audience. And the main speeches, the mini monologues that are dotted throughout the play, just go on for too long. I lost interest in them and just let the noise wash over me.
As a result, I can’t say I fully engaged with the production; I got the gist of what was going on, but probably engaged with about 60% of the dialogue. Worse than that, I couldn’t emotionally engage with Yank and, whilst he was going through his crisis I just prayed that someone would put him out of his misery… and quickly.
This is a real shame, because the cast are great and bring a real intensity to their performances. It’s an interesting subject that possibly should have been given more room to develop than its 90 minutes.