Review: The Hairy Ape, Southwark Playhouse ***

The wheels of industrial capitalism are oiled with sweat and the toxic ‘democracy’ of market mechanics is enough to make a man mad. Such is the seething criticism of this lesser known Eugene O’Neill work, in which the labouring ‘ape’ of the title loses all sense of belonging after rich industrialist’s daughter Mildred slums it in the stokehole of the ocean liner where he works, condemning him with one disgusted look to the same animal status as chimps in the zoo. The imagery might be heavy-handed, but the message punches hard.

striking images characterise the aesthetic that director Kate Budgen has created with designer Jean Chan

In this rare London revival, the mechanical and the animalistic rub up roughly against one another; the bourgeoisie, represented by oddly sinister mannequin heads, rotate round like clockwork, while O’Neill’s tormented protagonist crawls, growls and beats his chest. Such striking images characterise the aesthetic that director Kate Budgen has created with designer Jean Chan, evocatively illuminated by Richard Howell’s haunting lighting. O’Neill’s implicit criticism of industrialisation and the capitalist culture that it has ushered in is appropriately reflected in the very industrial atmosphere that the creative team have managed to bring into the Southwark Playhouse, characterised by the dance-like, almost mechanised movement of the workers in the bowels of the ocean liner.

For all that it gets right, however, Budgen’s production gets other elements wincingly wrong. If slumming Mildred and her sneering aunt have been deliberately interpreted as caricatures then they are far too grimacing ones, while the piece’s only genuinely socialist character is troublingly propped up as a comedy figure. There is also much in O’Neill’s text that is gobbled up by the staging, as dialogue is drowned out in the masculine blast of the stokehole or the mechanical capitalist whirr of Fifth Avenue. Like Mildred, this production seems to be striking a pose – albeit an arresting one – without really knowing where it stands.

*** (3 stars)
Runs until 9th June
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