The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic
He’s just “Yank” in the furnaces of the transatlantic ocean liner where he works, and he’s used to it. More than that, he’s proud of it; he’s so respected and feared as the strongest stoker on board that he’s earned the dignity of a nickname. But when the philanthropic daughter of the wealthy steel merchant calls him a “filthy beast”, Yank is awakened to the lunacy of the class system that has shaped him.
A short play, running just one and a half hours straight through, The Hairy Ape is an exclamation of contempt from Eugene O’Neill at the social effects of capitalism in early 20th century New York. O’Neill channels his derision through expressionism, using masks, choreography and stark, sinister colour schemes to convey a sense of barbaric “otherness” in the upper classes. As Yank explores New York society, he discovers a dehumanised people – people living like clockwork under the forces of capitalism. Even the socialist parties do not sympathise with Yank’s feelings, casting him away as a suspected spy. Finally, he looks to the ape for some accord.
Presented here is the tragedy of the poor in a capitalist world. Bertie Carvel is powerful and aggressively confused as Yank, yet he manages to convey an intriguing tenderness in his desire to find acceptance and understanding among his comrades. His depiction of the lost soul is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying.
The staging and set design are powerful in their minimalism and exciting in their inventiveness. Synchronised movements, identical faces and asymmetrical sets are just a few of the arresting devices used to distort reality and transport the audience into the disturbed mindset of O’Neill’s outcast. The cast support this design with their lofty attitudes and detached, cold airs. The entire effect is chilling.
In this potent play O’Neill once again shows his dexterity to get into the mindset of the destitute and the impoverished, and the Old Vic have done a respectful yet unique job in reproducing O’Neill’s ideas in a compelling production.
The Hairy Ape is on at the Old Vic until 21st November 2015, for further information or to book visit here.