The newly-redecorated Old Vic theatre boasts a shiny white entrance hall, revamped all-day basement café, and the prospect of a hardy drink upstairs at Mark’s Bar which is open until 2am in case you’re up for a big one. And it is here that we are, with some disparity, thrust into the class wars of Twenties New York with Nobel Prize-winning Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Published in 1922, this prime example of the theatrical expressionism begins aboard an ocean liner, where we see class barriers physically laid out in front of us with a transatlantic tale of upstairs-downstairs.
Down in the stoking room, shoveling coal into the furnace is Yank (Bertie Carvel), a hardened New Yorker used to the physical grind of manual labour and painfully realist about his position – and prospects – in society, whether or not he is happy about them. Up on deck is the spoilt, precocious and utterly naïve Mildred (Rosie Sheehy) who would have you believe is boldly liberal, but is every bit as under-prepared and institutionally small-minded as one would fear such a cosseted girl to be. One such as Yank.
Yank is something of a hero below deck, the alpha male to whom his motley bunch of colleagues aspires: strong, opinionated and able to hold more than his fair share of liquor (which seems rather necessary in their ghastly surroundings). The other guys don’t just revere but fear him, and seek his approval, which gives Carvel’s brooding introduction here in Richard Jones’s production – perched on the end of a table, a simian arch in his back – fantastically effective as you feel the silent menace of the group’s natural leader whilst scuffles and tussles are hashed out beside his ominous quiescence.
Carvel is wholly unrecognizable as Yank, even from the proximity of the stalls – his shaven head and dirt-covered skin, combined with his sheer physical bulk seem a world away from the nice, clean, boyish look you may have seen on the television. His initially latent aggression soon comes out with full force, yet with the vague impression of reluctance, much like a real ape might not necessarily be angry or hostile, but driven to it by the frustration of its confinement.
Yank’s resentment of the ruling classes is already apparent, so when Little Miss Fauntleroy demands a tour of the entire ship (her grandfather owns the steel company that made it), she is duly taken down to this devil’s pit “to see how the other half lives.” And despite her hyperbolic bravado, the pampered princess is so petrified that when she comes face to face with this “filthy beast,” as she calls Yank, she screams the house down and demands to be lifted out of such a nightmarish place, presumably never to return. No one even needs to say ‘I told you so.’
Once the voyage is over, Yank remains haunted by the fear and disgust his mere presence instilled in a young girl, and the slur she delivered him. Why shouldn’t he be seen as a human being too? His anger takes him to Fifth Avenue, where vacuous socialites run him down, to prison, to the offices of Industrial Workers of the World (whose intellectual approach to the problem is lost on the more oafish Yank) and finally to the zoo, where he comes face to face with precisely what Mildred (and furthermore, the world) views him as: a hairy ape.
With a suitably screechy turn as Mildred, Rosie Sheehy perfectly evokes the immaturity, hedonism and sense of entitlement that haunts much literature covering The Jazz Age. And Carvel is angrily magnetic in what is a powerful and intense performance. However, his syrupy-thick New York accent does not entirely come off, and ranges from a Goodfellas imitation, through to notes of Irish, with perpetual Slavic overtones. That is a bit of a distraction, especially since Yank has an awful lot of words to say – sometimes they just end up as an unintelligible rant. Having said that, Carvel is highly effective and is above and away the star of the show as the ape, so that when he comes face to face with one real such creature in the finale, the exchange is chilling (in more ways than one); nigh-on delirious with pent-up rage after his ineffectual journey to right the wrong done him, Yank turns out to be the author of his own demise. A fact of which he almost seems despondently aware all along.
This is a slick production, with stylized and affecting visual references and glaring beams of light that most certainly wake the audience up (especially when some of the monologues persist so). It’s 90-minutes of all out gritty wrath, and you won’t fail to miss the point.
The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic Theatre runs until Saturday 21st November 2015. For information and tickets, visit the website.