“I liked it… when I understood what he was saying!” – the verdict of a fellow theatregoer as we filed out of The Old Vic having seen The Hairy Ape. ‘He’ being Robert Jones (Bertie Carvel), known to his colleagues as ‘Yank’, for reasons not explained in the play (as far as I could tell). It is not, I hasten to add, Carvel’s fault that his character was often indecipherable. It’s simply the way Eugene O’Neill’s script was written. For example: “I’m at de bottom, get me! Dere ain’t nothin’ foither. I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de woild moves!” That is how Yank talks, which looks fine on paper (just about), but when you’re hearing it at considerable speed, it’s not easy. Carvel struts the stage well – very well, in fact. Let’s just say the endorsement of his personal trainer in an advert towards the back of the show’s programme is justified.
But even if every line was delivered in a RADA or an RSC dulcet tone, some of it was still drowned out by clattering, stamping and calling out – making this production more naturalistic than expressionist as it echoes the noise and activity of the engine room of a transatlantic liner. O’Neill would not have been happy: his stage direction for Scene One is crystal clear: “The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic.” Oops.
Yank never even comes close to being enlightened by the many life experiences that are seen onstage. While his resoluteness can in one sense be admired, what little character development there is happens in the last half-minute of the play – too little, too late.
It’s all the more disappointing because the overarching themes the play explores are deep and meaningful, with plenty of food for thought. Yank may think he is unique and powerful, and there is something to be said for the hard working but low paid employees below deck, without whom the ship wouldn’t be moving at all. I remain in two minds about the play’s notion that working class will remain the working class no matter how angry and vociferous they become. But there is something quite dystopian about a trade union that won’t accept a man such as Yank.
There are some very good (and always comprehendible!) performances from Steffan Rhodri’s Paddy and Callum Dixon’s Long. Sadly, though, I wasn’t the only one clock watching and stifling yawns. The show did, however, get enthusiastic applause from some quarters, and I’m genuinely pleased it touched some people. The choreography goes some way to redeem this production, whether it’s depicting hard manual labour or the respectable classes ignoring the platitudes of the church service they have just attended and going about their capitalist ways on a Sunday lunchtime.
I suppose there’s a reason why, as the Old Vic’s Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus, puts it in his programme note, this show “only turns up once in a lifetime” (question: did the Southwark Playhouse production in 2012 not count?). The play’s title is as unnecessarily wordy as the script itself – what sort of an ape isn’t ‘hairy’? Still, this production serves as a timeless reminder that society, however modern and civilised it may claim to be, is never really that far away from regressing back to an era when the human race wasn’t quite so evolved.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Eugene O’Neill’s timeless classic of class and identity.
A classic expressionist masterpiece by Nobel prize-winner Eugene O’Neill, The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, a labourer who revels in his status as the strongest stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner. But 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. Searching for a way to belong, Yank is forced to confront primal questions about his true place in the world.
Directed by the acclaimed, multi-award-winning director Richard Jones. Credits include Anna Nicole (Royal Opera House), Public Enemy, The Government Inspector, Annie Get Your Gun (Young Vic), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC), Tales from the Vienna Woods (National Theatre) and Into the Woods (West End).
The Hairy Ape
The Old Vic
103 The Cut, London, SE1 8NB
Show Opened: 17th October 2015
Booking Until: 21st November 2015