THE HAIRY APE
by Eugene O’Neill.
Old Vic Theatre The Cut SE1 8NB To 21 November 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs: 1hr 30min No interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7628. (£2.50 transaction fee – does not apply to Supporters of The Old Vic).
Review: Carole Woddis 3 November.
Strong vision, revelatory moments, but sometimes it falters.
It’s easy to forget how experimental Eugene O’Neill was in his time, The Hairy Ape (1922) breaking stylistic conventions all down the line in its indictment of American capitalism.
As if a precursor to Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge longshoremen and Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman, O’Neill’s central protagonist, `Yank’, a rough, tough steel-stoker, appears some thirty years before as a character lost in an increasingly mechanised, brutalist world, finally broken on the wheel of emotional and existential dislocation.
Where does he belong? Nowhere, neither amongst fellow labourers, nor on the streets of a glitzy New York, nor in the arms of the union, fighting for workers’ rights. Only in the arms of a hairy ape, a gorilla in a cage in the zoo, does he finally find peace and sense of kinship.
In the late 1980s Peter Stein brought an extraordinary, four hour expressionistic production to London. Richard Jones’ zippy 90 minutes visually captures O’Neill’s fervour and experimental mix with a set that places the stokers within a caged environment, zapped in primary yellow (Jones’ favourite colour) and intercut with the head of the steel magnate, Douglas, hanging in mid-air like some omniscient god reminding us of steel’s one-time over-arching place in the world.
Visually Jones’ vision works. Unfortunately, he’s less careful in communicating the text of O’Neill’s poetic romanticism and despair, crucially because of Bertie Carvel’s adoption of an almost incomprehensible working-class American accent for `Yank’.
Carvel’s athleticism parallels that of our distant primate cousins, swinging from the bars of Stewart Laing’s hothouse work environment but verbally, his sense of exploitation is muffled and goes for nothing.
Happily, there are moments provided by Steffan Rhodri’s Irish stoker capturing O’Neill’s rhapsodic memories of sailing the seas and Carvel in a final moment of pathos conveying his character’s psychological bewilderment.
Overall, though, it’s a lost opportunity. Matthew Warchus’ regime has smartened the Old Vic front-of-house and cafe to bring it into the 21st century, but heretically, one wonders how Hairy Ape might have worked in the in-the-round configuration that proved so successful latterly under Kevin Spacey.
Secretary of an Organisation/Ensemble: Adam Burton.
Robert Smith `Yank’: Bertie Carvel.
Mildred’s Aunt/Ensemble: Buffy Davis
Long/Ensemble: Callum Dixon.
Gorilla/Ensemble: Phil Hil.l
Ensemble: Elan James.
Second Engineer/Prisoner/Ensemble: Nicholas Karimi.
Paddy/Ensemble: Steffan Rhodri.
Mildred Douglas/Ensemble: Rosie Sheehy.
Ensemble: Christopher Akrill, Charllie Cameron, Okorie Chukwu, Elan James, Ben Lee, Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins, Luke Murphy.
Director: Richard Jones
Designer: Stewart Laing
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Sound: Sarah Angliss
Casting: Jessica Ronane CDG
Associate Director: Joe Hancock
Voice & Dialect Coack: Rick Lipton
Fight Director: Bret Yount
First performance of this production of The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic Theatre, London, Oct 17, 2015