At some point in everybody’s life a question is asked that is, in many respects, never fully answered “where do I fit in?” We all want to belong to something – anything from a particular group of people to an entire socio-economic group – it is conditioned in us and once we find that position, often we are content to stay there for a lifetime, unless something happens to make us question where we are in the grand scheme of things. Eugene O’Neill takes this idea to an extraordinary place with his play The Hairy Ape currently at The Old Vic.
In the firemen’s forecastle of a New York bound passenger liner, the firemen are having a bit of downtime between shifts. Their conversation is loud and raucous and a lot of it is about how bad their lives are down in the stokehold. Among the group is a left wing agitator by the name of Long (Callum Dixon) who wants to stir the men up into a revolutionary force ready to overthrow the capitalist classes. Only one man doesn’t really join in with the rest. He is known as Yank (Bertie Carvel) is the obvious leader amongst this group and when he speaks the rest listen intently. He is proud to be a fireman on the ship and in his own way believes that it is they and not the well-heeled passengers up in First Class who are the natural masters of the ship as they control all its power, guaranteeing a steady 25 knots to get the visitors on the upper decks to New York.
On the deck above, Mildred Douglas (Rosie Sheehy) the pampered daughter of a steel billionaire is telling her aunt (Buffy Dervis) that she has basically forced the ship’s captain to allow her to visit the engine room and other areas below decks. Mildred is looking forward to the visit but when she gets there and sees Yank her reaction is violent and she calls him a filthy beast, then faints. Surprised by what has happened, Yank starts to question himself and his own identity of who he is in the world. Leaving the ship, he sets off to find a place where he belongs among the denizens of Manhattan’s various social classes.
The Hairy Ape is described as an ‘Expressionist’ play. Now apparently that means that it follows a European style which presents the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. I can agree with some of that as at times the play was, to use a layman’s term, distinctly odd. The opening scene, in the forecastle set the tone very well. The firemen were a cohesive group who did everything together and had almost come to think and act as one – beautifully demonstrated by the group repetition of a single word followed by synchronised restrained laughter. This made Yank stand out even more from the crowd and also I think really established him as their leader. His ability to think for himself and to logically rationalise their relationship with the passengers – turning conventional wisdom completely on its head in the process – really set him apart from the others.
Obviously this is down to excellent writing but also the skill of the actor playing the role and in this, Bertie Carvel is an absolute marvel. His transition from a leader with huge self-belief to the figure we see slumped over in the final scene is heartbreaking to watch – particularly as he brings virtually none of his downfall on himself but is merely the victim of a society that doesn’t know what to do with the likes of him. Bertie is truly brilliant in the role and I would be hard pressed to think of anyone else I would like to see play the yank. Credit has to go to the rest of the cast for their excellent support of Bertie and the production. Rosie Sheehy’s Mildred was spot on and made the audience dislike the odious little girl – who should have spent more time on the naughty step and less on ocean liners – from the start, and I want to give a special mention to Phil Hill. In order to avoid spoilers I can’t tell you much about Phil’s character except that it was brilliantly portrayed and was so amazingly realistic I did wonder at one point if I was seeing the real thing rather than an actor.
Director Richard Jones production was pretty impressive although there were some problems with sound as it was very difficult at times to fully hear everything in the first scene and – although I’m sure it was intentionally done to reinforce a plot point – some of the lighting effects were actually quite painful from where I was sitting. However, at no point did these things really distract from the performance itself nor did I ever feel I had lost my way with the story being presented, even when things were at their most surreal.
To sum up, The Hairy Ape is a fascinating if slightly confusing play – I never really understood why Mildred reacted the way she did on seeing Yank – that is surprisingly still as relevant today as when it was first performed. Bertie Carvel is superb as Yank and delivers a first rate performance of an excellent production from start to finish.
Review by Terry Eastham
Eugene O’Neill’s timeless classic of class and identity.
A classic expressionist masterpiece by Nobel prize-winner Eugene O’Neill, The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, a labourer who revels in his status as the strongest stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner. But when Yank is called a ‘filthy beast’ by the overbred daughter of a steel merchant, he experiences an awakening of consciousness that leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighbourhoods and disenfranchised underbelly of New York society. Searching for a way to belong, Yank is forced to confront primal questions about his true place in the world.
Directed by the acclaimed, multi-award-winning director Richard Jones. Credits include Anna Nicole (Royal Opera House), Public Enemy, The Government Inspector, Annie Get Your Gun (Young Vic), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC), Tales from the Vienna Woods (National Theatre) and Into the Woods (West End).
The Hairy Ape is an iconic piece of American drama brought to stage by a visionary of British theatre.
The Hairy Ape
The Old Vic
103 The Cut, London, SE1 8NB
Show Opened: 17th October 2015
Booking Until: 21st November 2015