The Old Vic Tunnels is a superb choice of location for Eugene O’Neill’s three early sea plays, and the cast and crew pulled out all the stops to take full advantage of it. The start was wonderfully promising: walking into the auditorium, we are first confronted with dirtily sweaty (and nicely toned) men shovelling coal in a red hot furnace that is a convincing replica of the below decks scene in Titanic. As we sit on (surprisingly plush) red cushioned raised seating, the picture of the stage below is impinged on by dark head shapes that create the feel of watching an old-school black and white film reel.
The monochrome nature of the first scene and its quite antiquated attempt to convey the essence of life on board ship, using movement, sound, lighting and smoke, further confirms this initial perception. This is not to its detriment: its start is so powerful because of the images you see – and its subsequent strengths derive primarily from this focus on setting.
With fantastic costumes, sufficiently grimy-looking makeup and props, and beautifully dilapidated scenery, the verisimilitude is (I imagine) pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the script didn’t match up to the high professionalism of Van Santvoord’s stage design, Emma Chapman’s lighting and Alex Bararnowski’s sound. Having seen Anna Christie at The Donmar, it is evident how very much O’Neill improved over the few short years. That both 1917 plays In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home were significantly stronger than its predecessor, the 1914 Bound East for Cardiff, only confirms this sense of the playwright’s progression.
It is unfortunate that O’Neill’s incredibly obvious plotlines and weakly-thought-through characters were further let down by wooden acting that, lacking the critical essence of vitality, failed to keep momentum up. Especial mention must go to the disappointing leads, whose shortcomings were made particularly obvious in the first (and weakest) play: Bound East for Cardiff. The story of a dying sailor, it follows all trite and predictable routes possible to culminate disappointingly with the standard American dream “farm in the Argentine” chat and inevitable death. Without exceptional dialogue and convincing acts, this fell flat and started the triad off to a poor start.
Though predictability is clearly an O’Neill trait, the second short play was leaps and bounds more enjoyable, as we watched a sailor’s supposedly suspicious black box lead to a virtual character assassination, his trustworthiness disintegrating under his fellow sailors’ conjectures. The letter read by said sailor’s ex-girlfriend was probably the most exhilaratingly atmospheric moment from all three plays: suddenly I was injected with an emotion and empathy that I had sorely lacked before, and that highlighted its absence thereunto. The betrayal of this man should have been a very powerful reminder of the immense pressure these sailors were under, as they struggled literally in the midst of a world war waging all about them, yet the script never really got off the ground enough to feel anything other than improbable.
The third and final play was probably the most potent: about sailors’ drunken escapism on shore and bartenders’ ruthless exploitation of it, I left feeling genuinely upset about the predicament one of the sailors would wake up to find himself in. Having warmed up a bit, this performance was the most convincing, and the most shocking.
Although the marriage of setting and scene in The Old Vic Tunnels justly deserves the programme’s accolade “inspired’” the combination of these particular scripts with a mediocre cast was anything but.
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