Eugene O’Neill’s classic American existential drama The Hairy Ape is strikingly staged in a new outing at the Old Vic directed by Richard Jones. Against Stewart Laing’s ingenious set, lit in bright blues, reds and yellows by Mimi Jordan Sherin, men move and grunt in unison as they shovel coal into furnaces down in the stoke hole of a transatlantic ocean liner. In the rec room, downing beer and liquor and singing laddish sea shanties, the leader of the group reveals himself. They call him ‘The Yank’, an alpha male known by his nickname for so long that, later in the play, he struggles to remember his real name.
The Yank (Bertie Carvel), the “hairy ape” of the title, and the group of grubby, muscular men sway and swagger down in the belly of the ship, dirtying the walls with their sweaty and soot-stained bodies. Aletta Collins’ choreography is powerful and visually stunning, just one example of the production’s frequent decent into style over substance. The deep monotonous speech of the stokers and the Yank’s Brando-esque drawl render the text almost incomprehensible in places, but that’s probably the point: the men come from a world that an outsider couldn’t possibly understand.
The Yank throws his weight around the metal cage of the stoke hole, the metal cage of the rec room and later the metal cage of prisons and zoos in New York City. He starts sure of himself and of where he belongs in the world. He is steel. He powers the ship. But when Mildred (Rosie Sheehy), the daughter of the steel magnate who owns the ship, skips down the oily stairs in her pristine white dress to see how the other class lives, the whiny, waifish young woman shakes his self-belief to the core. Mildred faints at the sight of him – a real ape of a man, all abs, arms and aggression – but not before calling him a filthy animal and shooting him the condescending look of a social better that haunts the Yank for the rest of his days.
Leaving the stoke pit and finding himself on dry land and strolling through the capitalist paradise of 5th Avenue, the Yank is confronted by more social discrimination, this time at the hands of faceless flappers in furs and their well-to-do husbands. Imprisoned by society’s laws and divides, he ends up physically imprisoned in a New York jail, extemporising angrily about being caged and grunting about resembling the hairy ape the girl saw when she looked at him. When he comes face to face with a real ape the play’s clever exploration of a man’s growing class consciousness becomes a little ridiculous but the final scene is still really quite hair-raising.
The Hairy Ape never quite delivers the punch that the menacing feeling, building up like a curling fist with Sarah Angliss’ soundscape and the spit-out words of the gruff men promises, but it’s still an electric show. The Expressionist piece is extravagant, great to look at, carefully wrought and full of tension. It’s not quite a solid piece – very much of its time and bewildering in places – but it’s strong, sharp, and shot through with steely determination.