The Hairy Ape strikes a pose from the instant the curtain rises. Stretching in front of us is a tableau of “men at work”.
They’re captured in their natural habitat, filthy, drunk, cursing and coarse. A striking image that David Attenborough would immediately have identified as “homo neanderthalensis”.
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which has just opened at London’s revamped Old Vic Theatre, was written in 1922 but it’s at least 30 years ahead of its time.
The highly stylised expressionist piece is more typical of work from the 1950s, a point picked up and used in Stewart Laing’s superb stage design.
We first meet Yank and his mates in the hold of a ship where they all work as stokers. A large yellow letterbox set fills the stage with a rag-tag collection of men celebrating the end of a shift.
There are moments when they are frozen in motion, which is artistically impressive to look at and slightly surreal.
O’Neill’s very physical story, about a man seeking his identity and self-respect, is visually striking though more memorable for Bertie Carvel’s tough, poignant and powerful turn as the play’s anti-hero, Yank.
It’s not a drama for everyone. For a start Carvel’s New York accent is thick enough to cut with a knife. I got about one word in 50. But it’s incredibly effective and I found myself warming to him.
His final speech, before committing an act of gross stupidity, is moving, packed with the sort of emotion only a man brought up the hard way can show, and beautifully delivered.
Given another 30 years and he’d probably have morphed into Brando’s mumbling Terry Molloy from On The Waterfront. He’s a shoo-in for the “I coulda been a contender” speech. Hell, Yank probably wrote it.
Yank is the all brawn/ little brain leader of the stokers. His life is spent shovelling coal into the furnaces on board a ship owned by a steel magnate.
He is pumped full of testosterone, cocky and self assured. A big, dirty piece of beefcake who lords it over the others with his enthusiasm for the job.
Veteran stoker, Paddy (Steffan Rhodri), an Irish drunk with a silver tongue, waxes angrily about their lot. “We’re caged in like bloody apes in the zoo!”
When the pampered teen daughter of the ship owner decides to visit the engine room she is horrified by what she sees. She calls Yank a filthy beast and the charge causes him to re-evaluate his life.
But what sort of life does he have? Determined to have revenge on the girl he heads for the streets of Manhatten and finds himself out of his depth in an alien world.
It plays on his mind that he’s nothing more than a hairy ape, good for nothing other than being kept to feed the engines of ships.
Aletta Collins‘ effective choreography creates some stunning scenes when the men are rhythmically working together to stoke the engines. Less successful is the street scene where Yank is confronted by the faceless upper classes who inhabit a different world to him.
I initially came away from The Hairy Ape with mixed feelings over whether the production is successful but Carvel’s performance is unforgettable.
“What right have they got to be exhibiting us like monkeys!” he rages. Later, shocked and bruised by life above decks, he asks himself “Where do I fit in?”
The Hairy Ape is 90 minutes long (without interval) and director Richard Jones has come up with an ambitious and thought-provoking piece that misses in a few places but is saved by its stylish staging and a captivating central performance.
Running at the Old Vic Theatre until November 21.
The Hairy Ape
Bertie Carvel delivers a powerful and captivating turn as Yank in Eugene O’Neill’s stylised expressionist drama The Hairy Ape.