The Theatreguide.London Review
Young Vic Theatre Spring 2015
I am about to appear inconsistent.
Last year I praised director Ivo van Hove for having the audacity to violate Arthur Miller's instructions for a realistic setting in A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic. And now I am going to criticise director Natalie Abrahami for doing the same thing with Eugene O'Neill's Ah Wilderness in the same theatre.
In my defence, I think I am actually being very consistent. Miller was striving in A View From The Bridge for a tragic quality that his anchoring the play in a very specific time and place has always seemed to hinder, and by removing the specifics Ivo van Hove brought out the playwright's vision more powerfully than ever before.
O'Neill's intention in Ah Wilderness is entirely to evoke a specific time and place – one that never quite existed, to be sure, but one that he creates and sustains out of imagination and nostalgia.
By removing so much of the milieu, Natalie Abrahami and designer Dick Bird take away or interfere with a lot of the play's purpose for being.
Ah Wilderness, O'Neill's one intentional comedy, is a consciously romanticised picture of a world he'd like to believe existed – small town New England in 1906, a time and place of innocence, warmth, good will and loving families.
It's a world in which teenage love can be celebrated without irony, fathers and mothers really do know best, and the farthest reach of a rebellious adolescent's imagination is a single and immediately regretted night of drinking.
O'Neill himself never lived in such a world. At that time and in that place his family life was a lot closer to darkness he would later describe in Long Day's Journey Into Night. But it was evidently important to him to create the fantasy and to share it with an audience.
Natalie Abrahami's production is not set in a small town in Connecticut, as far as we can see, though the characters keep saying it is.
Dick Bird's set, inspired as a programme note explains by an African ghost town, is an abstract construction of pillars, arches, stairways and steep rakes covered ankle-deep in sand, evoking Greek tragedy more than American comedy.
Costumes and some characterisations range randomly from roughly the right period through the 1960s and 1980s, and although a dialect coach is credited, the cast speak in a babble of what seem their own natural accents and rhythms, none of them accurately Connecticut.
The result is the almost complete loss of a sense of time and place. And while a similar stripping-away liberated the essence of Arthur Miller's play last year, the sense of time and place is the very essence of O'Neill's.
That the production succeeds at all is largely to be credited to O'Neill's writing and to the performers who, under Abrahami's direction, work hard to put back into the play the reality and specificity that the production works so hard to remove.
George Mackay is touching and totally believable as the teenager drunk on first love and on his reading of 'wicked' writers like Baudelaire and Shaw, while Janie Dee and Martin Marquez are the parents everyone would wish to have – conventional but flexible and defined by love and wisdom.
Dominic Rowan and Susannah Wise bring warmth to an underwritten subplot about the family drunk and the spinster who can't bring herself to give up on him.
In another probably unwise audience-distancing move Abrahami introduces the silent figure of the adult O'Neill, onstage continuously observing all and taking notes for the play (this one) he's going to write, and David Annen tastefully makes himself as unobtrusive as possible while also ably doubling in a couple of minor roles.
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Review - Ah Wilderness - Young Vic Theatre 2015