Designer Q&A - Stewart Laing on The Hairy Ape

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We spoke to Stewart Laing about designing The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill’s detailed stage directions and collaborating again with director Richard Jones.

What initially excited you about designing The Hairy Ape?

Ive seen a couple of exceptional productions of the play so it was the challenge to work on a new production and explore beyond the versions Ive seen work so well previously.

Are you excited to work with director Richard Jones again?

Ive been working with Richard on and off for over 20 years now. Its the ongoing conversation that excites me. We start the process by reading the play with each other, several times, taking alternate parts and reading in quite small units and then talking about whats going on. We might then start to draw while were reading it. Richard draws as well, and sometimes we draw on the same piece of paper, Im not precious about that. If I draw something and he wants to add something to it, or scribble it out and do something else, for me thats part of the process.

Did you approach The Hairy Ape in the same way?

Yes, except the difference is that we actually found two recordings of the play. One was a BBC radio adaptation that had Dominic West playing Yank, and the other was an American radio recording so we would switch between the two recordings. The scenes in The Hairy Ape are really short, theres eight scenes and each one is maybe about 10 minutes long. So we would listen to a scene and then talk about it.

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

What were your inspirations for the design?

I think Im quite eclectic in my references we were looking at Charlie Chaplin movies, contemporary fashion shoots, shipping container architecture, Russian expressionism and propaganda from the early 20th century, Rousseau paintings, and lots of ape imagery in popular culture from King Kong and Planet of the Apes, to Tarzan and the recent TV adverts for SSE Southern Electric.

The play is set in the 1920s. Will your design be a historical representation of that period?

No, not at all. The play is an expressionist play so we were also looking at expressionist paintings, expressionist art, expressionist cinema like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Were trying to find a sort of contemporary version of expressionism. I think Wikipedia says that expressionism is about exaggerating certain aspects of things to get a more emotional impact. So were trying to find a modern version and vision of what expressionism might be for this play.

Eugene O’Neill wrote detailed stage direction. How did this inform your design?

When Richard and I were reading the play we would always read the stage directions, these long paragraphs at the beginning of each scene that sort of set them up. Sometimes wed draw exactly what Eugene ONeill was describing. But then often we would change it, to try and keep the essence of his idea but change it to suit the way Richard directs and the way I design.

Were there any themes in the play that you wanted to bring out in the design?

I think were really looking at the industrial world, the industrialisation of the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The play looks at human beings and how maybe they dont fit into the industrial world that was very quickly built around them. Human beings did not evolve to work as machines in factories and in ships. And I think thats where the ape imagery comes in, its to do with this primal animal thing of what human beings are, contrasted with how were expected to function in a big industrialised society. It still feels very pertinent, those big industrial structures that we live in are still here, theyve not gone away.

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