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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Hairy Ape
Old Vic Theatre  Autumn 2015

This is a not very successful production of a play I don't think it is possible to be successful with. So that's a victory of sorts, I suppose. 

Before he got to his late masterpieces, Eugene O'Neill experimented with every style of play writing and construction imaginable. It has been said that in the 1920s he never wrote two plays in the same style. 

In The Hairy Ape he doesn't seem to have written two scenes in the same style. The play swings wildly from realism to choreographed stylisation to social satire to expressionism to nightmare to symbolism and maybe back. 

For any production to make it hang together a director would have to impose his or her overarching vision on it, battling O'Neill as much as following him. And Richard Jones has chosen, honourably but a bit disappointingly, to follow O'Neill, racing to keep up with his constant changes of mode. 

The antihero of The Hairy Ape is Yank, a stoker on a luxury steamship. He loves his hard work and takes pride in being the feeder of the engines, the ultimate mover who makes the machinery work. 

An encounter with a slumming first class passenger, who is repelled by him, sets him off on a quest to reclaim his dignity. But a string of episodes merely show him how little the world thinks of him and how far he is from the real power. 

The strongest element in this Old Vic production is Bertie Carvel's performance as Yank, and it is the consistency of his characterisation that is most nearly successful in making the episodic and style-shifting play hang together. 

From the start Carvel establishes the man as slow-thinking but oddly determined to think his way through things. And whether he is in the middle of a dreamlike sequence or facing a reality that's new to him, we are always aware of him working very hard and very slowly to absorb and make sense out of what's happening. 

The fact that he frequently gets things wrong only adds to our respect for the man so dedicated to something he's so inexperienced at. 

Carvel places this quality of straining at thought within an intensely physical performance, every posture conveying the sense of strength and potential violence. 

It's in what is going on around Carvel that director Jones seems less sure. The reactions of Yank's fellow stokers to his outbursts seem too neatly choreographed, while a scene that should be tightly choreographed when upper class New Yorkers seem like robots to him is too shapeless. 

Too many opportunities to assign personalities to secondary characters are missed, and the need to change location and set (and degree of realism) for every scene forces closing the curtain and inventing some action to cover the delay. 

So, even at 90 minutes straight through, the production feels long and slow-moving. 

See this for Bertie Carvel's performance and for the opportunity to check a second-level O'Neill play off your must-see list. But come with modest expectations.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Hairy Ape  - Old Vic Theatre 2015  
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