Friday, 30 October 2015

Theatre review: The Hairy Ape

After a year or so in the round, the Old Vic has returned to its traditional proscenium arch configuration, but in every other respect the second show in the season continues new boss Matthew Warchus' efforts to distance himself from the heritage style of his predecessor's tenure. This time Warchus has looked down the road to the Young Vic for one of its regular artists - one I've had trouble warming to in the past. Director Richard Jones brings his cartoon-like style to Eugene O'Neill, with Bertie Carvel bulking up to create another new look as The Hairy Ape. Carvel plays Yank, the de facto leader of a team of workers stoking the fires below decks on a cruise ship.They sweat and get filthy in the dark to keep the engine going while above them the wealthy passengers enjoy the view, rarely giving them a thought.

Most of them, that is - Mildred, heiress to a steel fortune, has lofty ideas of reaching out to the less fortunate, and decides to visit the stokers. Catching Yank in the middle of an angry rant she runs away in terror, calling him a filthy beast.

Having been utterly confident of his position in life below decks, Yank has this thrown off-balance by the young woman's dismissal of him - although Mildred never actually calls him a hairy ape he becomes convinced she did, and obsessed with this description of himself. On reaching New York he tries to take revenge on her and her whole social class, but finds life conspiring against him.

The Hairy Ape is one of those O'Neill plays where the playwright really indulges his ear for dialect, and Jones' production goes full throttle with the accents; Carvel's Brooklyn accent is often impenetrable, especially to start with, but O'Neill's dialogue is so packed with colloquialisms that even the various British accents on show are tricky at times. It's alienating in the wrong way, although it is something the ear tunes into sooner or later.

The play's an expressionistic fable about capitalism, and Jones' production ramps up its surreal nature; it's an interesting approach at times but has the effect of making the message even less subtle than it already is. The performances are stylised, perhaps a bit too much in the case of Rosie Sheehy as Mildred - a performance so expansive that, although it's clearly deliberate, I left with no idea whether she can act or not.

The gruff but meaningless masculinity of the other stokers is more effectively conveyed, the strong supporting cast including Steffan Rhodri (whose face also haunts Yank as Mildred's steel magnate father,) Nicholas Karimi as the Second Engineer, and The Twits' handsome Welsh monkey boy Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins turning out to be a lot more buff than expected.

L-R: Hairy Ape, Handsome Welsh Monkey Boy

Stewart Laing's bold design, which keeps coming back to a bright yellow box, makes the production visually striking, as does the physicality of Carvel's performance. But there never seemed to be much below the arresting surface. I by no means hated this like I have some of the director's other shows, in fact it flirts with greatness but doesn't deliver.

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill is booking until the 21st of November at the Old Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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