How annoyed would you be if someone called you a hairy ape? Slightly peeved? Seriously irked? How about so apoplectic that you’d plot murder and then free a gorilla from the zoo? If – like me – you fall into the latter category, you’ll love the Old Vic’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s macho 1922 play, Hairy Ape.
Ship stoker Yank (Bertie Carvel) is the alpha male of his ocean-liner. He can shovel more coal, drink more liquor and punch more faces than any other man. He has purpose: “I’m steel and steam and smoke and de rest of it!” He’s the self-aggrandised foundation upon which America is built – he has no time for his weak shipmates, with their yearnings for the past. But then the granddaughter of a millionaire steel magnate, busy indulging in a spot of poverty tourism, totally loses her mind over Yank’s greasy, sooty, sweaty appearance, branding him a “filthy beast” and destroying his fragile male ego.
Any semblance of naturalism bleeds away as Yank wanders aimlessly through New York, blinded by rage but entirely impotent. Grotesque dandies in bowler hats glide across the stage but Yank’s punches, suddenly ineffectual, bounce cartoonishly off them.
The visuals are as fine as anything you’ll see this year, drawing inspiration from Soviet propaganda posters; glistening men move in unison, shovelling coal like pistons in a darkly beautiful machine, their bodies stark against the garish yellow set. Later Yank hangs precariously from a giant red girder, the trappings of capitalism – jewellery and furs – reeling beneath him. Set changes are masked by some excellent projections, one showing an art deco-inspired corporate film advertising Yank’s new nemesis: Douglas Steel.
The production isn’t without its problems, though: Carvel’s accent is all over the shop – at first he sounded Russian, later swinging too far in the other direction into a comically exaggerated Brooklyn patois. It’s a shame: he puts in an otherwise powerful, muscular performance, every bit the disenfranchised hairy ape. More broadly, the opening scene is over-long, with some of the dialogue unintelligible, and the climactic finale – in which Yank meets the actual hairy ape at the zoo – isn’t quite as crunchy as you’d hope. But this is a fierce, visually arresting production that bodes well for Matthew Warchus’ nascent tenure as the Old Vic’s artistic director.
First published in City A.M.