Entertainment & Arts

Young Vic ventures into Eugene O'Neill's Wilderness

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Image caption Ah Wilderness! represents a departure from the expected 'dark' Eugene O'Neill style

Ah, Wilderness! is usually branded a comedy, although writer Eugene O'Neill liked to call it an American folk play. Outside America it has never enjoyed the popularity of heavyweight O'Neill dramas such as Long Day's Journey into Night.

But the director of a new production in London thinks, eight decades after it was written, it has plenty to offer. And the play has given actor George MacKay his most challenging role yet.

At 23, MacKay is in a position most young actors would envy.

Last year, he was widely praised for his role in the film Pride, playing a young man who comes out as gay during the 1984 miners' strike. His movie career began much earlier - in the 2003 version of Peter Pan. In between, he featured in British films such as Sunshine on Leith.

His LA agent has been busy too. Still to be released is Captain Fantastic, in which he plays a member of Viggo Mortensen's family, who live "off the grid" in the Pacific Northwest.

But for now MacKay has turned his back on film to appear in a play by an American who investigated families and their complexities with unrivalled insight.

Before getting the part he knew little about O'Neill - the only US playwright to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"I suppose I knew he had a reputation for dark, heavy plays and that a lot of it had elements of autobiography," says MacKay.

"But everyone agrees Ah, Wilderness! was a bit of an exception for him. There are more comic elements than you expect and you need a real lightness to play some of the scenes. But I wouldn't call it out-and-out comedy either.

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Image caption 'Eugene O'Neill was unflinching in investigating his own life and experiences for the stage,' says the play's director Natalie Abrahami

"The play presents decisions about growing up which O'Neill the man had been faced with, even if my character Richard doesn't necessarily come to the same conclusions.

"Eugene O'Neill is writing about Connecticut in 1906, when Richard is 17. It's no coincidence that in 1906 O'Neill was also 17. The play's probably an idealised imagining of what went on."

Far from unique in the playwright's work, alcohol lubricates the story. Richard's Uncle Sid has mislaid the habit of sobriety and then Richard gets drunk when he thinks he's been rejected in love. He finds himself in a brothel.

In only his second professional stage role, MacKay has had to pitch the drunkenness at a convincing level for the 400-seat Young Vic auditorium.

"Cod drunkenness would be embarrassing and the director Natalie Abrahami has been very good at letting me find the right approach," he says.

MacKay is six years older than the character he's playing. But he still recognises parts of himself in O'Neill's writing.

"The main thing with Richard is his hunger for discovery. One of his great loves is the Victorian poet Swinburne and he keeps quoting him, even though his mother disapproves.

"It made me think of the first time someone introduced me to Bob Dylan: I don't think I really understood it but I was swept up in it anyway. Swinburne is a bit like a 19th Century Morrissey, celebrating all that heartbreak."

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Image caption Ah Wilderness! sees characters in search of their true identity and place in the world

Natalie Abrahami's most recent job at the Young Vic was directing Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The set for her new production largely dispenses with O'Neill's very literal stage directions and presents the audience with a dreamlike setting which evokes Connecticut in a way which Beckett would recognise.

"It's a timeless coming-of-age play and I was so moved when I read it. It's about Richard's parents trying to nurture him even as he establishes his own independence. It's set on 4 July, which of course is Independence Day.

"Its texture is not like most O'Neill work but a lot of the essence is still there anyway. There's the importance of alcohol, the power of lost love and the struggle to establish your own beliefs. These characters are in crisis in their own lives - but there's also humour.

"Eugene O'Neill was unflinching in investigating his own life and experiences for the stage. The peak of that was probably Long Day's Journey into Night [which O'Neill wrote in 1941 but which was performed only after his death].

"This play feels like a prelude to that one and the wilderness is his own life."

In America, some revivals of Ah, Wilderness! can be exercises in gentle nostalgia for a lost world. There have been two musical adaptations, each basically light-hearted and neither much remembered.

MGM released Summer Holiday in 1948 and a few years later came a Broadway musical called Take Me Along.

Janie Dee, playing Richard's mother Essie, says the current production isn't simply set in 1906.

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Image caption 'The Young Vic manages to keep ticket prices down and it gets in a young audience, many of whom aren't regular theatregoers,' observes actress Janie Dee, who plays Richard's mother

"The way it's staged there's a hint of it being a memory play: You sense there's a world which came later. But in a way it always was a memory play, with O'Neill older and looking back on his teenage years.

"When I first read the play I was a little surprised the Young Vic was eager to do it. But the production is saying something new. And at the same time it's warm and perceptive about family life."

It's Dee's first time playing the Young Vic, a theatre with an open thrust stage and a deliberately rough-edged aesthetic. But she says it hasn't proved as different as she'd supposed from playing a 900-seat West End playhouse.

"It feels like a more intimate theatre than say the Garrick or Wyndham's. But we had a session with David Lan (the Young Vic artistic director) who reminded us that voice projection is massively important in this space because there are areas where the sound can get trapped.

"But the Young Vic manages to keep ticket prices down and it gets in a young audience, many of whom aren't regular theatregoers. So it's not going to be the same audience you get in the West End: Usually it's more vibrant.

"Somewhere like Wyndham's has its own ghost and with the right play I love those theatres. But when you come to a show like this you feel the Young Vic has a totally different ghost. It's special."

Ah, Wilderness! can be seen at the Young Vic until 23 May.

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