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The Hairy Ape

Is that what she called me— a hairy ape? — Yank
The Hairy Ape
Emma King as Mildred and Bill Ward as Yank (Photo: Jane Hobson)
Southwark Playhouse, that exciting Fringe theatre under the arches at London Bridge station, goes from strength to strength with its imaginative programming of new plays and revivals. The Hairy Ape, Eugene O'Neill's 1922 impressionistic play and study of alienation is set in the engine room of a great Transatlantic liner. This production is the first major revival of this play in London for 25 years.

Below decks men toil stoking the fires that drive the ship. Set on a cross traverse stage the stokers are clustered tightly together in cramped quarters. They are from many different countries but one sailor, Yank (Bill Ward) stands apart, if not exactly the alpha male, an independent man with his own voice and thoughts. The men in dark clothes and blackened singlets are choreographed to toil in the red lit darkness of the stokehold. They load shovels with coal and throw the contents into the fire, synchronised in a wonderfully rhythmic scene. They drink from bottles and they sing sea shanties and tell evocative tales about life at sea, the ghostly story of The Flying Dutchman who forever travels the high seas, and their strange accents reminding us of how disparate they are.

Above decks is another world, lit with ultra bright lights that have us squinting as if in bright sunlight. Heiress Mildred (Emma King) the spoilt daughter of a millionaire owner of an oil company takes up verbal cudgels with her aunt (Lizzie Roper) and is determined to pay a visit to curiosity of the black faced stokers. She goes down beneath decks in a white dress accompanied by an officer. When it is suggested she might like to wear something more suitable in the coal dust filled room she says she has plenty of other white dresses. Yank feels the indignity of this rich girl treating them as exhibits and when he turns around to stare at her after she has heard him cussing, she calls him a hairy ape and has to be helped back to the upper deck. Despite his physical strength and his ability as a stoker he is upset by her remarks and he vows to get even.

If we are hoping for an Anna Christie type ending, a love story between the magnificent physical strength of Yank and the rich girl, we will be disappointed. O'Neill has no room for sentimentality or neat endings. After landing in New York, Yank and another sailor, Long (Mark Weinman) go to Fifth Avenue where rich people are emerging from church. They see a monkey fur in a Fifth Avenue luxury store window and the rich get excited about the fur. Yank gets into a brawl with one of the upper class gentlemen, the police are called and he ends up in prison.

After a month cooling off in the cells, and reading a leaflet aimed at social change, Yank goes to meet a political activist group of intellectual socialists called The Industrial Workers of the World. Welcomed at first as an activist among sailors, his revolutionary fervour is too extreme for them and they are suspicious he is a spy. This is compounded when he hesitates when they ask him his name. They insult his intelligence and reject him. Once again the hairy ape imagery is hard for him to shake off. Rejected by Mildred, by upper class society and by those opposed to the upper classes, he seeks out companionship at the zoo, now walking hunched over like a gorilla, crouching on his haunches.

In this play, the powerful and stylish images tell us about the fate of the toiling man as he is humiliated and misunderstood. All that is left for him to bond with are the primates in the zoo with fatal consequences as he releases the animals.

The success rests very much on the central performance of Bill Ward as Yank. His task is to be rough and yet stay sympathetic as he tries to find allies to challenge the position of the rich in a capitalist world. His is an acting tour de force with an uncultured accent we have to strain to pick up on. We never see the arrogant Mildred again whose insensitive remark is the catalyst for Yank's later actions. The whole cast works hard in multiple roles, seamlessly changing costume to bring a world of different characters.

Director Kate Budgen has taken this play and created the settings, having the cast carrying heads on sticks to simulate the church crowds or wheeling in tall bars to define prison cells for the Blackwell's Island penitentiary, printers in the IWW with eye shades or simulating the zoo from the dark and atmospheric noises. The Hairy Ape is a masterclass in direction in a small space with more acting talent than big spend. Running at just 90 minutes, we feel we have been to many different places on Yank's ultimately dehumanising journey as he seeks a meaning for, or an ending to his oppressed existence. Powerful and thought provoking.

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The Hairy Ape
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Kate Budgen

Starring: Bill Ward, Gary Lilburn
With: Stephen Bisland, Emma King, James McGregor, Mitchell Mullen, Patrick Myles, Lizzie Roper, Mark Weinman
Designed by Jean Chan
Lighting: Richard Howell
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Movement: Lucy Cullingford
Running time: 90 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking to 9th June 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th May 2012 performance at Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard Corner of Tooley St & Bermondsey Street, London, London SE1 2TF (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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