The Hairy Ape: An interview with Steffan Rhodri
Almost a century after its first production, The Hairy Ape hits the stage of the Old Vic Theatre under the direction of legendary Richard Jones. Written by Nobel prize-winner Eugene O’Neill, the story is a theatrical commentary on class division and the politics of identity during 1920s industrial capitalism. The Upcoming had a chance to speak with Steffan Rhodri, who plays Paddy, to discuss the play, its thematic implications, and his own acting career. As someone who has worked in film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), television (Gavin and Stacey) and theatre (The Mentalists), Rhodri provides a very meaningful insight on this ever-relevant masterpiece.
What, in particular, compelled you to work on this production of The Hairy Ape?
I thought the play was exciting; it’s just very different and experimental. I suppose it’s expressionism, but I didn’t really know about that. What I knew is that it was all a bit surreal and weird, and telling the story from a very personal point of view of one man’s journey. And the character that I play is a big challenge because he’s Irish, so I thought “Well, I’ll give that a go,” because I’m always up for a challenge. And even though it wasn’t the lead part, it was a very significant part in the role that he plays in the lead character’s life. This wonderful speech that I get to do at the beginning almost kicks off the drama, really, and plants the idea for the lead character’s search for himself. Also, I’d never worked at the Old Vic before and I’d never worked with Richard Jones before. Everybody told me what a wonderful, exciting and innovative director he is, and that was a good reason.
Now that you mention Richard Jones, could you expand on your experience of working with a director often lauded for being imaginative and visionary.
Yes, exactly, he is! He works very visually, so there are big visual concepts. He works with a great imaginative insight, so he takes imaginative gambles, and I like that. I like big, bold, brave decisions. And that means that sometimes he changes his mind a lot, and that’s okay when you know that he knows what he’s doing, and that he has loads of experience. He is quite eccentric, and I quite like that as well. And he’s very funny. I really enjoyed working with him, to be honest. Even though he works in such a bold and imaginative way, he has no big ego at all. He is very humble and easy to work with. So, he’s great!
You already talked a bit about your character Paddy in The Hairy Ape, a heavy-drinking Irishman with an undeniable intellect that the protagonist, Yank, often refers to as “old”, “dead” and “not belonging”. What else could you say about the primary function of your character’s role in the play?
I was a little bit cautious at first in that he’s often referred to as “old”. They keep saying, “Oh, you’re too old, shut up” and I thought, well I’m not that old. I wondered why I’d been cast! But when I got to understand the context more, which is that they’re coal stokers working in an ocean miner, and they’re the guys who shovel the holes to make the engines work. It’s a brutal, hard, physical life. I’m 48 years of age and that’s kind of old in that life. It’s a physically demanding job, so he’s constantly complaining about being plastered, and his back can’t take it anymore. But he has an insight into life. He represents a link with the past and the old sailing ships that he once worked on in his youth. There’s this wonderful speech where he talks about how that was all life affirming, and they were one with the elements: the wind, the sea and the stars. And that now, the lead character, Yank, thinks that he’s powerful because he’s the leader of these men shovelling the coal into the furnaces, but actually they’re just part of a machine, and they’re dehumanised. That is what this wonderful speech is about, and what plants the seed of doubt in Yank’s mind at the beginning.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered while working on the play?
Physically, it was fairly demanding. There are movement sequences in it, which were quite demanding to do. And also for me, the biggest challenge is that I’m not Irish, and I’m quite a perfectionist when it comes to accents. I like the challenge of accents, and I’m fairly good at them. But I’m sort of good enough to know when I’m getting it wrong. So, it’s a bit infuriating. Some actors are that do accents are not very good but they don’t seem bothered. So it’s been a big challenge for me to try and perfect that, but people seem to say that I get away with it.
In what ways do you think the underlying themes of The Hairy Ape resonate still today?
Like all good works of art, you can’t pin it down in terms of what it means. It means what it means for the viewers. And that’s the case with this play. It asks a lot of questions about what it is to be human, what is a human being’s place in a mechanised world, which is part of the system. What is our link as human beings with other animals – especially primates? How closely related are we to a pack of apes, and what is the difference between us and them? So, there are a lot of big human questions like that in a wonderful, resonant hour-and-a-half of theatre. It says a lot.
Owen Jones will be holding a post-show talk concerning the justification of the class system. What are your views concerning the class system in Britain?
I love Owen Jones and I think that it would be interesting to hear what he has to say in terms of then and now. I think we probably live in a less defined class system now, compared to the 1920s, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a better society. The economic division between haves and have-nots is just as obvious and just as damaging, even if it’s not as obvious who is the upper class and who is the working class.
Do you find that contemporary theatre can still be seen as a space to draw social issues and ideas into the foreground of the public eye?
Of course. Even though one of the functions of theatre is to entertain, good theatre has always been there for us to look at ourselves as a society and be a forum for us to debate and talk about who we are and what is best for us. Without any doubt, theatre, more than any of the other arts, does that.
How do you decide on the roles that you take on?
I wish I were in a situation where I always had a choice. Some of the times it’s just timing. Obviously, I try not to do work that I specifically don’t want to do, but sometimes one has to pay the bills and just take the next job. But if there’s any choice, what I’m most driven to do, especially in theatre, is to be engaged with something that seems important and it’s a big challenge for me personally as an actor.
I don’t want to sound pretentious about it, but exactly what we have been talking about, I try to work in plays that will be part of a debate about what society is, and that will ask questions about who we are as people.
Who are some contemporary playwrights that you have on your radar, and what is it about their work that interests or inspires you?
I don’t know enough about new writing. I always enjoy doing new writing and I have done a few in the last couple of years, but by their very niche, you don’t really know who they are until a good play comes along that you can audition for. That’s how you discover who new writers are. The roles I choose usually have to do with how good the writing is, but sometimes it’s about how challenging the part is. I’m about to do Cyrano de Bergerac in the New Year, which is not contemporary at all, but it has always been on my radar because of the great challenge of it. It has almost got more in it than any Shakespeare that I’m able to do at the moment. I’m too old for Hamlet (and nobody has asked me to do it) and I’m too young for Lear. In the meantime, Cyrano is quite a good challenge. I’m doing it in Wales with a good friend of mine who is the director, and we’re going to give it a Welsh context. It won’t be a completely bilingual production, but there will be elements of the Welsh language. It is a translation from French into English, anyway, so we thought about making it from French to English, with a bit of Welsh in it. So that’s quite an exciting challenge ahead.
Frances Lai and Alejandra Arrieta
The Hairy Ape is on at the Old Vic Theatre until 21st November 2015, for further information or to book visit here.