Saw Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape for the first time three years ago at the Southwark Playhouse. That was a fairly straightforward production that used the small performance space brilliantly to recreate the cramped, noisy, hot belly of an ocean going liner’s engine room.
Really loved the play, the story of a man whose sense of place in the world is challenged and shattered in just the briefest of incidents.
On the vast Old Vic stage – now returned to its traditional proscenium arch layout - the confines of the engine room is recreated using what looks a bit like a ship packing container. It is painted yellow and there is a barred door on one side giving it a cage-like feel.
The stokers are kicking back with a beer, sweaty and smeared in coal dust, testosterone levels are high. Every now and again you get a sense of the ship lurching with the swell as the men stagger in unison.
Yank (Bertie Carvel) sits slightly apart from the group but is listening, occasionally interjecting. It quickly becomes obvious that he holds some power, some authority over the other men. He can cut off the start of a song with a whip-like command that cracks through the room.
The ship is his home, his life, it’s where he belongs. It is his place, his territory. He feels that his work as a stoker is important, he is better than the privileged passengers who occupy the decks above, after all he can make the huge, hulking metal ship move and what can they do? But then the daughter of a wealthy steel manufacturer requests a tour of the engine room and her knee-jerk reaction to what she sees, her reaction to Yank, has damaging consequences.
Director Richard Jones's production utilises physical and visual references - the cage-like work space just being one. Some of it works brilliantly. When Yank gets shore-leave and goes searching for the girl that has so upended him, the rich New Yorkers wear almost faceless masks so that a whole class of people blend and amalgamate into one. It reinforces Yank’s feeling of being an outsider, inferior, not part of the club.
The lurching with the ship and then later synchronised stoking are brilliantly choreographed. And, during fight scenes Jones occasionally has the cast freeze creating a tableau vivant that focuses attention, for a moment, on the emotional battle as well as the physical.
But not all of it works. The men's synchronized responses to Yank’s suffering feels a little bit comedy. At times there was a general sense of not everything quite gelling - the frequent and sometimes slow scene changes might not have helped. Then there is Rosie Sheehy's rich privileged Mildred who is just a little too full of precocious exuberance which resulted in too many sweeping gestures and movements. It wasn't necessary and a more outwardly serene but verbally pointed Mildred would have made a better contrast to the physical, muscular Yank. But this was a preview performance so there is plenty of time for things to gel and be tweaked.
The Old Vic's Hairy Ape is an engine that needs a little bit fine tuning but it has all the components to fly. It is an hour and forty minutes without an interval and runs until 21 November.
Related post: Hairy Ape production photos
So easy, Bertie was in Bakkhai with Mr W.