Reviews West End & Central Published 4 November 2015

The Hairy Ape

Old Vic ⋄ 17th October – 21st November 2015

Tragic and electrifying.

Stewart Pringle
The Hairy Ape. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Hairy Ape. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In his jolly programme intro, newly resident Old Vic Don Matthew Warchus refers to The Hairy Ape as a ‘remarkable piece of writing that only turns up on stage once in a lifetime’, so London has been remarkably well served, with this the second production of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist masterpiece in just over three years. The first was directed by Kate Budgen in the dank tunnels of the old Southwark Playhouse, where Bill Ward delivered a thundering ‘Yank’ who slaved in the dark, and was eventually torn apart by a beast witnessed only in deafening howls and occasional flashes of light.

It could scarcely be further from Richard Jones’ production here, painted in a vomitous municipal yellow, like a flouro donkey jacket or a double-yellow line, starkly lit and constructed from huge implacable images. Rather than the strict expressionism of Budgen’s production and earlier attempts, where the vicious world is seen viciously through Yank’s eyes, Jones instead reveals The Hairy Apeto be a construction of dreamscapes and tormented imaginings: the one great symbolist play of the machine age.

Bertie Carvel is a man-mountain as coal-stoker Yank. Where Ward’s performance suggested comparisons with Mark Rylance’s ‘Rooster’ Byron, Carvel looks like he could snap the Wiltshire boaster over his knee. He is too much, too full up, the spirit of speed and of excess. In the clanking piss-yellow box that houses the early scenes, his accent is so wild and so extreme that he’s only occasionally audible, with the stripped bare stage of the Old Vic turning into an impossible echo chamber. That early scene is a classic O’Neill scenario, a polyglot tumult of competing voices that only Yank’s roaring commands can cut through. It’s a mess, but an effective one, the unreal world emphasises the men’s isolation, the locked-off world which Yank has chosen as his own pocket universe. When it’s punctured by the appearance of the jaunting Mildred Douglas, it’s like a violation.

When Yank ventures outside of his world, on his doomed and baffled quest for revenge against Mildred for her panicked sleight against him, it’s into a series of stark and twisted rooms with shades of Kafka. Stewart Laing’s design pitches the clean whites and blues and the towering typography of capitalist product against the toxic hues of capitalist labour. The dirt that coats Yank and that he refuses to wash off after Mildred’s visit is only one part of the radioactive, murderous world which he is forced to occupy. Yank may embrace the dirt, but it does not embrace him. Just like the ape that will eventually destroy him, just like the machines that he believes he is one with, Yank’s own universe of labour rejects his comradeship. O’Neill’s play is packed with gorgeous, robust image sets, but it is his metallurgy of class, a peculiarly American conflation of personal and relational worth to the baseness or otherwise of steel, iron and gold, that feels most prominent and forceful here.

Jones’ production is extraordinarily lucid on The Hairy Apes great themes, which extend beyond those of the beast in man and the brutalising effects of capitalism. O’Neill, through his great and pitiful Yank, is asking who belongs and who doesn’t, who is the motor and the muscles of this new accelerating world and who is merely the coal to be burned up and broken down. Yank makes error after error. He mistakes his place in the world, he mistakes the target of his rage, he mistakes the means for revenge, he even mistakes the words that cut through him. It is Yank, not Mildred, who declares himself a ‘hairy ape’, and it is Mildred’s father, not the girl herself, who has subjugated him. The figure of elder Douglas looms large over Laing’s design, like a Big Brother of big business, until he finally becomes the ‘man in the moon’, his head floating over the cage where Yank will die, in a moment reminiscent of the release of dozens of Julian Barrett balloons at the conclusion of Jones’ earlier take on Government Inspector.

Where in the recent production of The Trial down the road, Jones’ imaginative staging butted against the inherent complexity of Nick Gill’s adaptation, here the relative simplicity and purity of force of O’Neill’s writing proves a perfect match. It may be lacking any other stand-out performances after Carvel’s, but then it may simply be that Bertie blows so hot and hard nobody can really stand up to him. Nobody, that is, except the Ape himself.

There’s no shying away from Yank’s final end here, with a stomping, roaring, bone-crushing Gorilla, played by Phil Hill and designed by some puppetry/animatronic genius. Its edge of hyper-reality brilliantly complemented by the Henri Rousseau-style paintings inside its cage, its hulking, stomping presence next to barrel-chested Carvel makes the final scene as tragic and as electrifying on the Old Vic stage as it must have been in O’Neill’s imagination.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Hairy Ape Show Info

Directed by Richard Jones

Written by Eugene O'Neill



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.