Old Vic

Review - The Sea Plays by Eugene O'Neill @ Old Vic Tunnels

Saw this in previews earlier this week, but have been slow to blog about it. Part of the reason, I think, is that O'Neill is one of those playwrights who just sits funny with me. No matter the quality of a production, I often just can't get past him. With the exception of Long Day's Journey and Moon for the Misbegotten, his texts always feel one-dimensional, and that they really have not aged well.

This production, in the AMAZING Old Vic Tunnels (a series of arches underneath Waterloo Station, converted into a snappy little theatrical venue) didn't add to or detract from my O'Neill apathy. It started out really well, with an image as we came in of the men working in the bowels of the ship (not too shabby to look at, either!). The design in the theatre space really used the arches well, the industrial feel of the space lent itself to an association with the at-sea locale; the use of the raw brick walls with work lights, cement floor, and little overhead light contributed to the overall feel of the production.

But the production lacked (and I don't necessarily criticise anyone but O'Neill for this) a certain relevance. The period dramas of the first two pieces, set on a transport ship during the WW1, verges on the absurd, when we have characters dying for the better part of 25 minutes. The second of the on-ship plays fared a little better, building anticipation over the contents of a box one sailor is hiding, but fizzles in its resolution. And the third of the plays, with location now moved to a dodgy east London pub, was a cacaphony of stereotypes, played out to their extreme. The performances were varied, with some very strong interpretations, and some weaker, including some bobbling accent work to be expected in a preview. As well, some scenes (particularly in the first play) could use tightening, again to be expected at preview.

But on the whole, I found myself questioning the choice of material most. Why does this matter to us now? What does it tell us about humanity and experience? I am still trying to find an answer.