Beneath the rumbling arches of London Bridge a wild beast is stomping its feet. The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill has landed at Southwark Playhouse. First performed 90 years ago, it's easy to see why the play has been resurrected. In a time of austerity and job losses the playwright's rant against the ruling classes, giving voice to the embittered working man, does not go amiss.
It is a challenging play, overtly political and expressionist, and director Kate Budgen does well to bring verve to what is often quite dense language. The Hairy Ape tells of a brutish man known only as Yank – a ship's fireman, obsessed by steel and grit. A chance encounter with the daughter of a wealthy capitalist sends Yank into a spiral of rage in which his physical prowess battles his moral convictions.
Performed on a cross-shaped stage – bisecting the audience four ways – the piece is a visual treat. The design is malleable, shifting from a ship's deck to Fifth Avenue beautifully, giving the performance pace and dynamism. The setting also complements the brilliant choreography which bursts into life through a number of memorable set pieces including a hypnotic, sweat-ridden sequence in the fireman's stokehole. The soundscape, aided by the trains above, adds menace as the play draws to a climax: growls and howls echoing from the darkness.
Bill Ward grapples with the central character of Yank – the hairy ape. It is a strenuous and tough role to perform, dominated by repetition and brewing violence. Ward teeters very well on the cusp of explosion, but often the writing strangles his characterisation – distancing the audience from Yank's desperate struggle to "belong" and his degeneration to a primal form.
The performance relies heavily on its ensemble, and Budgen marshals her troops excellently. The cast morph from drunken sailors to the self-absorbed aristocracy, inhabiting a realm that Yank cannot comprehend. Garry Lilburn and Mark Weinman in particular display stunning range in their performances: Lilburn is adorable as the philosophical Paddy, a weathered Irishman at sea, while Weinman brings a frenzied energy and flawed bravado to the role of Long.
The Hairy Ape is a robust, demanding play, and this production confronts the writing with ingenuity and relish. Stylistically bold and charged with existentialist angst, this wild beast rattles the cage and demands your attention.
The Hairy Ape runs at Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, London, SE1 2TF in association with Cartwright Productions and Creature of London until 9 June. Go to the Southwark Playhouse website for more information, book soon to avoid disappointment. Photo Credit: Jane Hobson.