The Hairy Ape (Old Vic)
Industrialisation is the enemy in this anguished work about man’s struggle to maintain his natural dignity
Eugene O'Neill's play opened in 1922 in New York to an astonished and enthusiastic welcome. He used The Hairy Ape to probe the bewilderment and disillusion felt by the soul of man, whose primitive pride and individualism was at war with 'the mechanistic development of society.'
The ugly realities of the changes brought by industrialisation could scarcely be better illustrated than in the hellish engines of a ship. Where wind power would have served previously, now teams of men are locked in to shovel coal into the furnaces.
The opening scene is electrifyingly effective, and director Richard Jones directs a pin-sharp cast with balletic precision as they respond to the dips and swells of the sea. Bertie Carvel's taut, muscular Yank is almost bursting with his toxic mix of pride in his work, and fury over grievances, real or imagined. While it takes a while to tune in to his accent, Carvel is, as ever, charismatic and extremely watchable.
Rosie Sheehy sparkles as pert and wilful Muriel, though her character flits in and out of the play all too briefly after her horrified encounter with big, sweaty, coal-smeared Yank. And her upright aunt, Buffy Davis, finds some of the few laughs in the script with her waspish cynicism. Steffan Rhodri excels as Paddy, with a beautifully lyrical account of sailing in the moonlight, back in the days before coal and belching furnaces took the romance out of seafaring.
Visually, this piece is stunning. Stewart Laing's design features a range of cages, all stifling voices of dissent or independence, and he captures the expressionism of O'Neill's drama with a mixture of masks, puppetry and a giant balloon bobbing ominously overhead. It's all lit with imagination and style by Mimi Jordan Sherin. The show's choreography by Aletta Collins is impressive throughout, with some terrific Charlestons.
The play's grand finale must have amazed New York audiences in 1922, who had not yet even made the acquaintance of King Kong - it still retains a sad and surreal quality - the anger of the working man raging helplessly against the dehumanizing effects of materialism and technological 'progress' resonates all too clearly today, and the dizzying combination of expressionist and naturalist theatrical techniques woven into the play's structure are still striking to a contemporary audience.
Sadly, however, its thin narrative and long, long tirades have palled. Despite the many strengths of this cast and production, The Hairy Ape seems diminished with time.
The Hairy Ape runs at the Old Vic until 21 November.