composer, performer and sound designer

The Hairy Ape

The Old Vic, London
Park Avenue Armory, New York

Composition and sound design for The Hairy Ape (1922) – Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist masterpiece which uses the overwhelming sounds of the engine room on an ocean liner to explore dehumanisation and the shock of modernity. At The Old Vic, London, and Park Avenue Armory, New York. Directed by Richard Jones.

Written in 1922, The Hairy Ape tells the tells the story of Yank, a labourer who revels in his status as the strongest stoker on a transatlantic liner. When Yank is called a ‘filthy beast’ by the overbred daughter of a steel merchant, he experiences an awakening of consciousness that leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighbourhoods and disenfranchised underbelly of New York society. In the Old Vic production, Bertie Carvel plays the troubled protagonist Yank. 

Sound cues from The Hairy Ape (Sarah Angliss)

The score I composed lives somewhere between sound and music – and it encompasses sound design as well as music cues. Richard and I agreed we wanted to create something experiential, where the audience feel awstruck by the sounds of the mighty steam ship as it creaks, groans and slips on its chains. The sounds of the ship’s engine room in particular needed to feel overwhelming (this requirement has had some fascinating repercussions on some of the earliest productions of the play).

I recorded industrial and domestic sounds that I felt had an affinity with the time period – everything from submarine gear, a working marine engine and the sound of shovelling coal to creaking metal doors, bowed lampshades and oil cans. To these, I added some cracked notes which I played on an old violin. These string sounds are pitched down to underscore Yank’s final speech as he lies dying in the ‘monkey house’ of Central Park Zoo. Sonically, this moment is in stark contrast to their earlier appearance, when Paddy mesmeries his associates with memories of the old sailing ships. Here the sounds create a sense of reverie, evoking sounds and other sensations from an earlier, more serene time.

I also sourced and radically reworked some old Charleston records to create eerie encounters with the rich parading like marionettes through New York. Much of the sound accompanies strange and exquisite choreography from Aletta Collins, showing men at work in the stokehole, the upper class grotesques of New York and more.

Set design is by Stewart Laing and lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin.

Park Avenue Armory

Using the acoustics of the Drill Hall

In 2016 the production moved to the vast drill hall of Park Avenue Armory, New York, where Yank was played by Bobby Cannavale.

The drill hall of The Armory is a huge void – large enough for the set designer Stuart Laing to reimagine the set as a doughnut which circled the raked seating. This turned slowly throughout the show to bring different elements of the set in front of the audience. The drill hall was also highly reverberant. I was able to strip the reverb from all my soundfiles and exploit the natural acoustic of the space to heighten the sense of foreboding – the feeling you were hearing something threatening but indisinct, perhaps from the far end of a mighty ship.

In New York, I was joined by sound associate Mike Winship.

Sarah, June 2016

The stokehole scene rotates into view in the Armory (Stephanie Berger)

Yank meeting the workers returning home (Park Avenue Armory)

The Hairy Ape - in the stokehole

The Hairy Ape – in the stokehole (Old Vic, London)