Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape artistically, and at times poetically, presents an overdue indictment on a society that reserves the right to needlessly exclude. The eponymous character is trapped on the lower deck of a repressive, ‘upstairs, downstairs’ society; whilst transition may appear fluid, it becomes increasingly clear that class is a cage from which no one can escape.
The physicality of the production was triumphant in demarcating the specific sub-sects of this society. From the opening freeze frame, the cage full of rowdy boilermen was brought to life by their synchronised slow-motion swaying, tossing them on a tide out of their control.
A highlight for the presentation of homogeneity was the almost grotesque portrayal of the New York elite, on their way home from church. Blank masked faces, adorned in sartorial finery, advanced in slow-motion, with exaggerated movements akin to dancing the charleston. The ‘Hairy Ape’ stood amongst them, with his characteristic, flea-ridden twitching, unable to make himself heard. The ghoulish group spoke only with repetitions of the phrase ‘I beg your pardon’, further denying them any personality or individuality. Yet we watch as the only individual character on stage craves this sense of mindless belonging.
The only real interaction the ‘Hairy Ape’ achieves, with each of the groups he approaches, is to be aggressively beaten. This choreographed sequence became a trope by which the scenes were defined. Somewhat repetitive, but certainly successful at driving home a message of disenfranchisement and rejection.
Unfortunately, these defining moments of physicality were punctuated with soul-searching soliloquies from the lead character. Not only did the energy noticeably sag at these points, but, beyond this, the script was detracted from by the speaker’s appalling accent. Aiming for an anger-ridden, Brando-esque New York Longshoreman, Bertie Carvel began sounding distinctly (albeit unintentionally) Eastern European. Whilst he did settle into the accent somewhat as the play unfolded, he still remained largely incoherent. His ape-like tendencies presented themselves through cacophonous crashing of any surrounding props, yet he was unable to project his voice over this noise due to the deeply glottal voice he had adopted to show his anger. Luckily the script itself was repetitively written, in order to hammer its point home, thus allowing us to understand what he was saying at least the second or third time around!
I am however pleased to confess that the production as a whole visually compensated for its verbal shortcomings. The omnipresent, sinisterly serene face of Douglas Steel, in projections, newspapers and even the giant ‘man in the moon’ balloon, was an Orwellian touch that brought a sense of looming control and discomfort for all. The synchronised choreography of the men hard at work in the boiler room of the great ship stoked the fires of moral outrage with the palpable energy and exhaustion of the men. And the set itself, with its stark yellow cages, simplistically created a dystopian world, at once nightmarish and surreally familiar.
Overall, The Old Vic was true to form in achieving a visually and morally outstanding production; my only suggestion would be to find a new vocal coach!