Class conflict, materialism, alienation, dehumanisation and disillusionment are the incendiary elements that ignite the drama of Eugene O'Neil's 1922 expressionist play The Hairy Ape, revived in a bold new production, directed by Richard Jones, at the Old Vic.
Yank revels in his status as the strongest stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner. But when he is called a filthy beast by the spoilt daughter of a steel millionaire, he experiences an awakening of consciousness that leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighbourhoods and disenfranchised underbelly of New York society.
Yank is forced to confront primal questions about his place in the world. Only in the zoo, where he encounters a caged gorilla does he meet a kindred spirit, but that too proves an illusion.
The production is starkly and imaginatively surreal, unfolding over eight succinct scenes, which does not leave much room for character or narrative development, while there is an excess of weighty symbolism. But O'Neil brings a certain poetic eloquence to this nightmarish scenario and the stifling effects of social class's rigid structure together with the portrait of oppressed workers reduced to the level of zombies are strongly conveyed.
Stewart Laing's striking design and Mimi Jordan Sherin's atmospheric lighting create a series of memorable images, notably the sulphurous hell of the ship's engine room where a team of grime ridden, stamping stokers rhythmically perform repetitive tasks, the ghoulish parade of the masked New York bourgeoisie and antiseptic orderliness of the union headquarters, with its uniform volumes stacked in shelves.
Bertie Carvel captures Yank's social alienation and internal struggle, continually seeking to find meaning in a world that demands conformism, only succeeds in conveying the bewilderment of a man proud of, and then trapped by, his own ape-like brutishness. Good support is provided by among others Rosie Sheehy as the ship owner's snobbish daughter and Steffan Rhodri as a fellow worker who tells the men toiling in the bowels of the ship that they are no better than slaves.
The production though suffers from problems of inaudibility – sitting halfway back in the stalls; I could not catch some lines of dialogue.
Nevertheless, this is an absorbing production of an unjustly neglected work that provides food for thought on the timeless isolation of the eternally oppressed.
The Hairy Ape
Plays at The Old Vic until Saturday 21 November 2015.
Box office: 0844 871 7628Last modified: April 7, 2021