The Hairy Ape, currently playing at the Old Vic, is indeed a strange beast. An expressionist play by Eugene O’Neill, it follows Yank (Bertie Carvel) in his rallying cry against a world that he feels has wronged him. Yank journeys from one steel cage, symbolic or otherwise, to another – from the hot, sweaty bowels of a liner where he is a stoker, to the menagerie at a zoo. Ultimately, this cumulatively symbolises how far he is trapped by how the world sees him and, indeed, how he sees himself.
As always with director Richard Jones’s work, the production is visually arresting with some truly spectacular images throughout. The sumptuous set and lighting (by Stewart Laing and Mimi Jordan Sherin respectively) definitely make this production, which in other areas is sadly quite trying.
While the opening of the play is wonderfully striking, and Aletta Collins’s choreography work for the stokers is incredibly effective, it is the storytelling that is incredibly unclear, setting the production off on the wrong foot. It’s very hard to understand what the actors are saying at all, and indeed what’s really happening for some time, with this problem rearing its head throughout the production. It’s not until well into the play that we realise its Yank’s story being told, by which point you already feel disengaged and confused – a feeling that only deepens as the play continues. With such a huge and unusual story to tell, clarity is key, but is here all too often eclipsed.
And while Carvel certainly throws himself into his performance as Yank, it’s hard to connect with or care for his character when it’s so hard to understand him, or indeed follow his many lengthy musings and soliloquies, which often feel repetitive and purposeless. While his performance is no doubt a feat of stamina, it does hit a pitch early on and stays there, with little nuance or variety to keep us with him, draw us in, or have us asking “what’s next?”
Furthermore, this trope of an angry, disenfranchised white man versus the world just feels a bit tired: we’ve seen it time and time again in plays old and new, and the argument for the ‘everyman’ character fitting this description grows weaker and weaker. It’s hard to care when this is the millionth time you’ve been asked to invest in someone who is supposed to, but doesn’t, represent you or your experience whatsoever, but also a character who has so little to like about him.
Ultimately the production feels long and meandering, even at an hour and a half without an interval, and all the brilliantly conceived spectacle can’t entirely compensate for the many questions – not the good kind – that it leaves you with. And indeed, while the visuals are so memorable, there are few dramatic moments that stick in the mind, nor outstanding performances. This isn’t the play for a young audience looking to really see the world anew or be told something they’ve never heard before – best look to theatres with more diverse artistic teams and programming for that.
The Hairy Ape is playing at the Old Vic until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic website. Photo: Manuel Harlan.