Poor old Eugene O’Neill’s life was no bed of roses. He was born and died in a hotel room and his life in-between was suffused with agonising drama. The one great result of all this suffering was that we are endowed with an endless stream of magnificent plays, which all offer a window into his world.
The Hairy Ape, now showing at The Old Vic highlights the ignominy that often blights the working class, for whom O’Neill felt a special empathy. This particular play of his might not seem as autobiographical as his others, but in fact O’Neill spent many months at sea as a young man. It is a strange and difficult production to stage, but Director Richard Jones and Designer Stewart Laing manage it perfectly. With a running time of 90 minutes and no interval, it assaults every sense. We feel the claustrophobic heat in the bowels of the ocean liner, we’re entirely aware of the humiliation and frustration of the stokers, especially of Yank, and we can almost smell the fumes from the constant burning coal.
Described by O’Neill as a mixture of expressionism and naturalism, The Hairy Ape’s main character is “top” stoker Yank. All rippling muscle and brute strength, the macho Yank sneers at everyone and everything. As top dog in the engine room, he knows where he belongs and is happy with his lot. That is until the spoilt, rich daughter of a steel magnate millionaire decides to indulge herself in a little bit of social work and see what life is like for the poor unfortunates who work below deck. She is at once repulsed and horror struck at seeing these filthy, partly clothed men and Yank, being first in line, takes the most flak. Addressing him as, “you filthy beast”, the young girl runs away screaming. Yank’s new title of Hairy Ape is thus born. Enraged at her attitude and shocked into realizing that his belief in thinking himself an important cog in society’s wheel is naïve in the extreme, he sets about seeking revenge.
Bertie Carvel is astonishing as Yank. Seeing him play Doctor Foster’s weak willed, cheating husband on television just recently, it’s hard to believe this astonishing, physical performance is by the same actor. He is a chameleon actor par excellence. His Godfatheresque accent is at times difficult to understand but there is no denying the indelible impression he leaves on the audience. From him swinging, monkey-like from the roof of the yellow steel cage where the stokers reside, to enlisting our sympathies when he is imprisoned and at the way the New Yorkers reject him, we are mesmerised.
Although a lot of the dialogue tends to be smothered, the visuals in this production more than make up for it. The wealthy stereotypical New Yorkers Yank comes across are dressed alike and masked. They dance the Charleston in unison, completely oblivious to this angry, common outsider. Then in the final scene, we’re treated to the spectacle of a scarily life-like caged gorilla (Luke Murphy). And it is this last cage that finally ensnares our anti-hero. The symbolism is clear for all to see.