Review: The Hairy Ape Depicts Brutalised Underclass

The Hairy Ape, Old Vic Theatre ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 38 months ago
Review: The Hairy Ape Depicts Brutalised Underclass The Hairy Ape, Old Vic Theatre 3
Bertie Carvel (Yank) and cast in The Hairy Ape. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Eugene O’Neill’s experimental play The Hairy Ape does not have the same shock value now as it would have done when first performed in 1922, but it still packs a primal power. Not only is its theme of the dangers of brutalising the capitalist industrial underclass a strong message, it is written in a daringly expressionist style that includes working-class slang which O’Neill himself branded “super-naturalism”. The result is an uneven but truly original piece of modernist theatre that relies as much on its imagery as its basic storyline.

The titular protagonist is Robert Smith, known as ‘Yank’, the lead stoker in the bowels of a transatlantic liner who takes pride in his physical strength that can help maintain a speed of 25 knots an hour. But after a steel magnate’s daughter venturing down from the upper decks calls him a ‘filthy beast’ he suffers a crisis in self-esteem, as for the first time he sees his true position at the bottom of society. He then takes to the streets of New York City seeking revenge on those responsible for dehumanising him.

The play’s heightened language and episodic structure charts a man gaining self-awareness but losing his bearings as he lurches from one confrontation to another, spurned by the well-to-do, beaten up by the cops and slammed in gaol, politicised only to be rejected as too dangerous by the Industrial Workers of the World, and ending up with the apes at the zoo. If a bit heavy-handed, O’Neill’s stark warning that if you treat people like animals they will start to act like them still carries force.

Richard Jones’s unbroken 90-minute production is visually stunning in its depiction of a stratified, mechanised society with distorted values, though some of O’Neill’s rich language is lost in the mix. Stewart Laing’s expressionist design shows Yank drifting from one sort of prison to another, from claustrophobic engine room to police cell to gorilla cage, while Aletta Collins’s stylised choreography features sweating, begrimed firemen shovelling coal into a furnace in unison like cogs in a machine and stocking-masked socialites cavorting as an untouchable group. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lurid yellow-green lighting makes a disorientating impact, and Sarah Angliss’s urban soundscape suggests a concrete jungle all around.

As Yank, Bertie Carvel gives an impressively physical, Brandoesque strutting performance, swinging from steel girders and bending prison bars. But he also reveals the vulnerability beneath this muscular machismo of a man now in free fall who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

There is good work too from Steffan Rhodri as a drunken Irishman waxing nostalgically about the pre-steam days of sailing ships and Callum Dixon as a socialist stoker who vainly tries to radicalise his comrades. And Rosie Sheehy plays the white-dressed, upper-class girl who gets more than she bargains for with her glimpse of “how the other half lives”, with Buffy Davis as her sternly disapproving chaperone aunt.

It’s a bold decision by the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus to stage this rarely revived, early work by O’Neill as his second show in charge, which pays off and augurs well for the eclectic programme ahead.

The Hairy Ape is on at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, SE1 8NB until 21 November. Tickets are £12-£85. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 03 November 2015