A gold prospector in Honduras, a plant-packer in Argentina, a mule-keeper on a voyage to South Africa…and all this before the age of twenty-seven. Eugene O’Neill’s CV offers up a few hints as to his inexhaustible worldliness, and it is this breadth of unfiltered experience that established him as a literary champion of the underdog. From the Provincetown Players to his four Pulitzer Prizes, his experimentation with dramatic form and psychological complication fostered a following that he – rare for any playwright – was able to meet on his own terms. Many of his leading characters were unprecedented on the popular American stage – a fallen woman in Anna Christie, a black dictator in The Emperor Jones. One such, with the unusual swirl of the poetic and verbatim, the symbolic and literal, was Yank: the brutish protagonist of The Hairy Ape. Director Richard Jones here explores Yank’s agonised and agonising, half-acknowledged and half-articulated search for a sense of belonging in 20th century society.
The pairing of Stewart Laing’s design and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting is dazzlingly disorientating, creating the atmosphere of bright unease that has become a calling card of Jones’ productions. Molten light streams into the audience over a toxic-yellow shipping container. Here a collection of filthy, fibrous firemen – sub-deck coal-shovellers on a transatlantic liner – erupt in a salvo of pitch-perfect grunts, hucks and snorts, tipping hypnotically from one side of the engine room to the other. Aletta Collins’ superb choreography crafts many arresting images, the most memorable being the firemen shifting open the furnace in unison, sudden scarlet heat drenching their smutched faces.
While the majority of the firemen seem happy to work, sing and sink endless slugs of whiskey, one man sits apart. Hands on knees, perma-scowl set on his lips, a simian restlessness is already squirming its way into his physicality. This is Yank, played with a chameleonic muscularity and sharkish presence by Bertie Carvel. A few careless words from the spoilt daughter of the President of the Steel Trust, and the world beyond Yank’s hellish hull is cracked open – a haunting echo of the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. The President of the Steel Trust becomes for Yank an obsession as tormenting as any god: the creator of his ship and the city’s skyscrapers, all the way down to his jail cell and even the bars on the cage of the zoo. Stuck between animalistic oblivion and a dim awareness of his spiritual nature, Yank is incapable of moving forward – and so must move back, bringing the tragedy to culmination when he finally meets his evolutionary forebear.
This is a strange play framed in a fittingly strange production. The tricksiness of O’Neill’s writing isn’t dumbed down for the British audience (lines such as “Wreckers, dat’s de right dope! Dat belongs! Me for dem!” take a little aural adjustment). Yet the production lingers in the memory like a feverish dream set on unfriendly shores where the language is gibberish but meaning carries clearly as a club to the skull. In an age where the term ‘feral underclass’ is dropped unironically into conversation, The Hairy Ape cannot help but resonate. “They dragged us down til we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin’, burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust!” – it is a dilemma of the human condition as old as the pyramids. We follow Yank from one end of the class spectrum to the other, encountering at first the privileged classes (O’Neill’s own stage directions read: ‘A procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness’). Their featureless masks and repeated refrain of “I beg your pardon?” only add to Yank’s nightmare. The man in the moon eerily appears on a giant balloon, dragged by a hiccupping clown. Even when he finds a seemingly natural sanctuary with the Industrial Workers of the World, their intellectual paranoia is more bellicose than his old pals’ behaviour beneath decks. From their sinisterly serene bookshop base (another nice design touch) Yank is betrayed, beaten and sent bowling out to discover the hairy ape that bookends both his past and his future.
Slinging past the saturnine tragedy are a few bright comets of absurd comedy. Buffy Davis’ sublimely acidulated aunt, for one, gives us a longed-for glimpse of humanity. Meanwhile the rest of the company offers steady support – particularly Phil Hill’s touchingly volatile gorilla. The physical execution of the play is mesmeric, thanks to a restlessly dynamic performance from Carvel. From his confined beginnings to his caged end he retains an oblique, almost Shakespearean cadence (“He got me, aw right. I’m trou. Even him didn’t tink I belonged.”). The piece often seems, however, to run away with itself, leaving us grasping for words torn through at speed or muffled by the clomping of boots. The writing is indisputably frantic, but at a lithe ninety minutes Jones is hardly in danger of boring us with a little more clarity.
O’Neill was a theatrical virtuoso, and the idea propounded in The Hairy Ape – man’s alienation in the modern world – is rescued from lofty pontification by the grimy anchor of naturalism. Yet it’s tempting to wonder how he – or better, a contemporary playwright – would pen a modern take on a modern Yank, a creature racked between the limitless freedom of the internet and the crushing constraints of the minimum wage. Meantime this bleak, savage and tremblingly potent production does well. O’Neill, well-versed in the ancient Greek playwrights, reminds us that man’s drama may used to pit him against the gods – but the struggle is now firmly with himself.