FROM THE FIRES BELOW, O”NEILL’S ACCUSING VOICE
From the opening moments of Richard Jones’ stunning, nightmarish production of Eugene O’Neill’s early play we have both the shock of expressionist newness – it can still disconcert, a century on – and a powerful sense of period. Both are profoundly right. The ships’ stokers, black with smoke and filth, are figures frozen in the angular energy of 1920’s socialist realism, lurching in robotic concord as if hit by the ship’s roll in their yellow steel barred cage. They come to life to quarrel and brawl and sing and stamp, or listen to Irish Paddy (Steffan Rhodri) declaiming O’Neill’s passionate threnody for the real days of seafaring. Days when “there was clippers with tall masts touching the sky, the clean skins and clear eyes of the men, free men…work, but work under the sky with skill and daring in it..”. All the baffked anguish of industrialisation rolls through it.
Only Bertie Carvel’s Yank, alone and moody at the end or suddenly erupting in caged, stamping energy, is inwardly struggling to make sense of life. It is to be his journey and his doom, this proud aloneness: his story could not be more stark and simple. On the great deck above the spoiled young heiress of the Douglas Steel empire bickers with a stiff aunt , the face of her father the tycoon adorning the shining bulkhead. Young Mildred has persuaded the Engineer to let her see the stokehold and “how the other half live”. When they descend to the fires and men who keep the liner moving smoothly, she sees Yank looming diabolic and dark against the flames . “Oh, the filthy beast!” she cries, and faints in her pristine white frock.
Yank does not get over it. His pride is shattered. In dock, he roams Manhattan half-coherent with revenge . Nightmare, puppetlike masked figures of the wealthy swirl around him; he lashes out and ends in another cage, a prison cell. Carvel’s angry Bronx is sometimes only half-coherent in the dodgy Old Vic acoustic (it’s back in proscenium mode now) but it doesn’t matter. The anguished reiteration of words and themesgrows in power: steel becomes his preoccupation, the bright metal which brings weary captivity to some and wealth to others. Prison shouts echo from every corner of the theatre. An innocent radicalized, he finds the IWW, the Workers’ Union derogated by the newspapers as “a dagger to the heart of America”. But Yank’s enthusiasm for dynamite over leafleting has him thrown out as a suspected spy.
His weary dusk is spent slumped alone against the barley-sugar of the proscenium edge (an almost accidental poignancy, so rich does the Old Vic paintwork look against his shabbiness) . A great balloon moon whose face is the Douglas Steel logo hangs smug above; finally comes the zoo scene where he envies the gorilla because it does not have to think. It is not, like him, trapped in a reflective, feeling, remembering human brain within a world which ignores it and makes him a commodity. All he can do is force open the cage.
The gorilla itself, his merciful executioner , is remarkable. All the physical ensemble work is: expressionistic without pretension, deft, frightening. Stewart Laing designs, Aletta Collins choreographs, sound and light draw its ninety minutes tightly together. A time to remember.
Principal sponsoring partner: Royal Bank of Canada