REVIEW: The Hairy Ape, Old Vic Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Bertie Carvell in The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Bertie Carvel in The Hairy Ape. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Hairy Ape
The Old Vic Theatre
28 October 2015
5 Stars
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It turns out there is a man in the Moon. A smug, self-satisfied man serenely gazing down upon the small, insignificant (to him) creatures below. Well, insignificant in that he will never meet or speak to them but significant in the sense that they have contributed to his ascension through their hard labour and purchase of his goods.

Bathed in the moonlight that beams from the Luna Man is the long enclosure at the zoo where a gorilla is being taunted by a tall, strapping working man. It’s not really a gorilla – it’s a man in a suit – but the impression is crystal clear and slightly, grotesquely disarming. Not nearly as disarming as the working man, who is trapped in a muddle of self-awareness, passionate rebellion against the society which categorises and reduces him, and a resolve to effect change, violently.

A well-bred young woman has let the cat out of the bag, by referring to the working man as “a filthy beast”, and sending him tumbling through a spiral of anger and introspection, played out against a panorama of Capitalist and Socialist images and settings, until he lets the gorilla out of the cage…

This is Richard Jones’ revival of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 ‘super-naturalism’ play, The Hairy Ape, now playing at The Old Vic, the second production in Matthew Warchus’ inaugural season as Artistic Director. It is a splendid achievement, full of ambition and driven by a clear artistic sensibility. The image of the working man, soliloquising, bathed in the effulgent coldness of the Capitalist Moon and standing next to a long yellow cage which houses a gorilla is one of the most potent, operatic images to be found on a London stage in some time.

Indeed, the sense that this might have been an Opera was all-pervading – high concept, vivid, symphonic, dealing with difficult interior feelings but, in many ways, sublime. There was, apart from the lack of a score, a true sense of the heightened reality and glorious immersion which comes in really good Opera productions. Jones’ considerable experience as a director of Opera was employed to maximum effect.

The choreography from Aletta Collins added to the sense of operatic achievement. The male ensemble executed blisteringly exact routines which compellingly conveyed the sense of cramped work conditions and arduous, repetitive and very physical work, shovelling coal into furnaces to be precise. They easily conveyed a pungent notion of sweat, heat, pain and comradeship. There was a beauty to the moves which beguiled, underscoring the harshness of their environment.

The Hairy Ape at London's Old Vic Theatre
The cast of The Hairy Ape. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The set design, from Stewart Laing, is utterly remarkable in every respect. He uses the space in original ways, creates specific spaces within a kaleidoscope of possibilities, and seamlessly allows the action to move from the bowels of an oceanliner’s engine room to Manhattan’s famous Fifth Avenue.

The central set piece is a huge rectangular cage which represents the engine room. It’s yellow, stark and bare – bars all along one side of the cage. Here, we first encounter Yank and his workmates as they are carousing during a work break. Later, we see them working assiduously, both with the furnaces open and blazing, and otherwise. Later still, the cage becomes the Zoo enclosure where Yank meets the gorilla.

Yellow is a dominant and recurring colour here – representing the excess of capitalism. In an extraordinarily evocative scene later in the play, the well-heeled of New York emerge from a Church, their faces covered in blank fabric masks, their shoes or gloves yellow. Their dance of indifference is riveting to watch. It is a clever device using yellow to represent excess and the trappings/causes of wealth. (A similar device was used recently in the Broadway production of The Visit, to similar great effect)

Mimi Jordan Sherin’s absolutely remarkable lighting assisted enormously. She almost blinds the audience as the play starts, symbolically warning of the harshness ahead and forcing eyes to be shut, so that when they are opened, it is almost a relief. In one stroke, Sherin demands that attention must be paid to what Jones and Laing have in store. Two other admirable touches linger in the memory: the moment when Sherin floods the stage with blood-red light to signify the men slaving in front of raging fires is arresting, and one can almost feel the heat; and the moment when the Moon appears and takes celestial command of the space, shrouded in the kind of gentle, evening glow reserved for important romantic encounters is breathtaking.

Actually, there is nothing to fault, in any way, about the physical production. It all works beautifully and the sense of the very different places that Yank encounters, including a jail and the office of the Industrial Workers of the World office, is clearly, viscerally conveyed. The scenes of the men in the hold of the oceanliner resting, working, arguing, showering, just facing their interminably hard labour lives are gritty and visceral: dance moves and exaggerated movement heighten the reality in a marvellously counter-intuitive way.

The piece relies for the most part on a towering central performance. Yank, the hulking, unthinking , titular hairy ape (is he though?), all brawn and mouth, who has a kind of epiphany when he scares a young society woman and wanders away from the safety of his ship to explore New York and see what it is and where he belongs, if anywhere, is the central force in the play, and in Bertie Carvel, Jones has an almost perfect star.

The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic
The Hairy Ape. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Channelling Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine aura, Carvel is as far from Miss Trunchball as could be imagined: coiled, impossibly tall (how does he do that?), brutishly muscular, thick, unyielding, an only just tamed savage who can down a quarter of whiskey without a care. It is an explosive, but magnificently restrained performance which freely and deeply examines the condition of the worker and the way the entitled and wealthy use, abuse and marginalise those they rely upon to stuff their purses.

There are some diction issues with Carvel, partly to do with the very specific, and inconsistent, accent he adopts. But these do not matter, again evoking the sense of opera. His handling of the lyrical material O’Neill writes – sometimes savage, sometimes reflective, sometimes child-like, always fascinating – is beautiful, caressing some passages, spewing out others. The sense of what Carvel’s Yank is saying and feeling is always crystal clear, as if he was singing aria after aria in a foreign tongue. There is a definite musicality to the overall approach so that when the final movement is reached, it is, appropriately, resigned and quiet.

Everyone in the cast is excellent, but Buffy Davis (as Mildred’s purse-lipped Aunt and an officious office volunteer), Stefan Rhodri (a drunken Irish co-worker of Yank), Adam Burton (a fastidious but unwelcoming Socialist) and Callum Dixon (Long, Yank’s sometime guide to Manhattan) are all outstanding. Despite the suit, Phil Hill was terrific as the bewildered gorilla.

O’Neill’s play has lost none of its power or resonance. It still feels as shocking and new today as no doubt it did in 1922. Jones’ revelatory and evocative production is not just beautiful to look at, easy to follow and enthralling – it also reminds that the questions of oppression, disparity and injustice which concerned O’Neill then are still pertinent. The world may not turn to the tune of industrialists quite so much in the 21st Century, but there is still a clear, powerful and rich elite and workers whose lives are made hideous while the rich get richer.

It might be serendipitous that The Hairy Ape opens in the week the House of Lords has rejected the Government’s intended cuts to tax credits but is certainly apt. This is a play which forces you to consider you place in the world and the place your Government and Capitalism insists you and others take. It is urgent and compelling – a feast in every way from Jones, Laing, Collins, Sherrin and an electric Carvel.

Who is the Hairy Ape? My money is on that Man in Moon.

The Hairy Ape runs at the Old Vic until 21 November 2015

Photos: Manuel Harlan

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