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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hairy Ape
Southwark Playhouse   May-June 2012

Eugene O'Neill's 1922 drama poses real challenges to any modern production, which makes it so happily impressive that director Kate Budgen and her company meet most of them successfully. 

Written when O'Neill was beginning a decade-long exploration of alternatives to realism, the play moves, sometimes awkwardly, between naturalism, heightened realism, expressionism, surrealism, nightmare and back again, while the language is a mix of realistic prose, rough poetry and O'Neill's notoriously tin-eared attempts at dialect. 

By stripping the set down to a bare transverse runway and imaginatively using light and darkness to create playing spaces and control mood, director Budgen and designers Jean Chan and Richard Howell smoothly navigate the shifts in style and mode. 

And by taking occasional small liberties with the text – I suspect she said to her actors 'This is evidently meant to be Irish (or Dutch or whatever). So don't try to follow it phonetically. Just do a realistic Irish' – she keeps the play clear and believable even as it drifts in and out of realism. 

The play is about a furnace stoker on a steamship who loves his work, convinced that, as the ultimate source of energy and movement, he is at the centre of things. A brief encounter with a woman from above decks makes him painfully aware of a world that has no place for him and considers him, when it acknowledges his existence at all, as little more than an animal. Trying to make sense out of this loss of identity, he wanders afield in that outside world and ever further toward madness. 

To add to its challenges, the play is over-talky, as if O'Neill mistrusted his ability to dramatise things and had to have his characters tell us what he was trying to show us. So, even though Budgen and her actors keep up the pace through a fast-moving ninety minutes, there are still, though no fault of theirs, some dead stretches that can be heavy going. Accept them as inescapable and you can appreciate the merits and accomplishments of this production. 

Carrying much of the play on his strong shoulders, Bill Ward movingly takes us through a range of emotions on Yank's futile quest for a place or for a means of revenge for not having one. With most in the small cast doubling and tripling roles, Gary Lilburn, Emma King and Patrick Myles provide particularly strong support.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Hairy Ape - Southwark 2012 

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