Old Vic Theatre, London (***)
It’s easy to forget how experimental Eugene O’Neill was in his time, The Hairy Ape (1922) the more so, 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 his 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, strangely topically, of, at one time, steel’s over-arching place in the world.
Visually and physically, Jones’ vision works. Unfortunately, he’s less careful in communicating the text of O’Neill’s poetic romanticism and despair crucially because of the much admired 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 have smartened up 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.
The Hairy Ape runs at the Old Vic Theatre, London to Nov 21, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Nov 2015