Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Review The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape
By Eugene O'Neill

A Stoker's Progress

Off to the palladial Old Vic to catch up on somewhat of a curiosity - Eugene O'Neill's 1922 satiric Expressionist play The Hairy Ape - a gorilla (as opposed to a guerrilla ;) ) play, eleven years before King Kong graced our screens.

Descending into a ship's sulphur yellow engine room, meet "Yank" (Bertie Carvel), the lead stoker or fireman, characterised by his brawn rather than brains as he mechanically shovels coal.   Part Popeye, part Marlon Brando, both later incarnations. 

But what surprised TLT and her free-thinking hatchback  is the resemblance to a reversed Rev Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies with Yank  like "the little black gorilla" chimney sweep literally below the surface. It's almost as if Irish American O'Neill engaged in a debate with Protestant English Victorian clergyman Kingsley, at the same time artistically embracing but also fearful of succumbing to social Darwinism.

However, unlike the begrimed chimney sweep of the fairy tale, Yank is a Frankenstein water baby who never finds redemption in this one-act 90 minute play.  

In eight scenes rhythmically directed by Richard Jones, Yank is propelled towards his fate via encounters with marionette-like church and party-going New York bourgeoisie and a book-driven workers' movement. 

Finally killed by political sentiment, deluded into a sense of brotherhood and commonality with an ape (Phil Hill deserves more than a mention for a memorable performance!), his bones are snapped like a puppet or clockwork doll by the animal whom he believes he can embrace and free.

In between he is a workhorse spurred into a kind of awakening. First by a lyrical whisky-drinking Irishman Paddy (Steffan Rhodri)  recalling the days of sailing clippers dependent on weather not machines.   

Then his own reverse Water Babies' Ellie, chaperoned steel heiress Mildred Douglas (Rosie Sheehy) who, wishing to play out academic social work theories learned at college, descends to the stokehold, only to seal Yank's fate, branding the fireman "a filthy beast" before melodramatically fainting.

Indeed it almost felt like The Truman Show before its time - with so much foreshadowing and characters testing out Yank's reactions before the inevitable end. 

Led by Long (Callum Dixon), the galley's Marxist agitator, into Manhattan's consumer society, Yank finally loses his passivity and registers with a political party after reading a newspaper in prison. But then turned on by his comrades, he's branded a possible spy and ends up in the zoo in front of the ape's cage.   

One can't help thinking such filmic and art school disenchantment may also have helped pave the way for mid twentieth century dictatorships and propaganda.  

It's a hair shirt of a play, five years after theory had also driven the bloodshed and famines of the Soviet Revolution.  Striking design by Stewart Laing (plus a stonking gorilla outfit, Stewart!), lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, choreography by Aletta Collins and sound by Sarah Angliss all drive Yank's progress. 

Even if the inaudibility of some of the Brooklynese (deliberately so, we think) adds to that hair shirt feeling, Bertie Carvel gives a virtuoso performance as Yank. Yet the combined design, lighting, choreography and sound in some scenes felt a tad too self-conscious for TLT's taste. 

 Was the play ever conceived to be a silent film (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was released in 1920), we wonder? Anyway, a few stills from the original stage production with Louis Wolheim are here   and here.  And an amber/green light for this simian fantasy and four days still until November 21 to see it.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Review Mr Foote's Other Leg

Mr Foote's Other Leg
By Ian Kelly

Perruques And Prosthetics

You couldn't make it up - an actor-manager and satirical playwright Samuel Foote should surely have been a character in one of his own plays. Running with a fast and ruthless upper class crowd, including the future George III and his brother the Duke of York, Foote loses his leg taking on a bet. Yet he made a comeback as a one-legged thespian with the apt singular surname  worthy of the celebrated Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch which his story may have inspired.

And there's an amputation scene, strenuous but not unduly bloody, yet TLT did wonder whether Mr Clint Eastwood or Mr James Caan might want to take on the role for an American production ...

Ian Kelly adapted his own biography of Foote into the play "Mr Foote's Other Leg", now transferred from a sell-out run at the  Hampstead Theatre to its natural home at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For Samuel Foote, played in this production by Simon Russell Beale with Kelly striking as his patron Prince George,  operated from the Little Theatre In The Hay with a Royal Patent in the 18th century, a forerunner of the current venue. 

In addition, he managed to evade the licensing and script censorship of the Lord Chamberlain  by claiming amateur status for his company, charging for tea or chocolate at his "tea parties" rather than audience tickets and performing improvisations including his own drag acts. 

TLT and her horse powered carriage was particularly intrigued by the theatrical premise of the play, having discovered the torrid rivalries of official and unofficial theatre companies doing research for her review of The Beaux Stratagem

And sure enough the play does encompass rivalries between Foote the comedian and David Garrick the tragedian (a finely judged performance by Joseph Millson), the competition from opera and  Hanoverian import G F Handel and the rise of the pleasure garden entertainment.  

Alongside themes emerging from Foote's possibly ambiguous sexuality, his relationship with his leading actress Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), his surgeon John Hunter (Forbes Masson), his Jamaican dresser Frank Barber (Micah Balfour)  and scientist and American statesman Benjamin Franklin (Colin Stinton). Not forgetting Foote's big theatrical break after the manslaughter of actor Mr Hallam (Joshua Elliott).

Past and modern literary, light entertainment, historical and current affairs parallels punch well beyond the 18th century into our present day.  But it's the gamut of themes, allusions and characters, each worthy of their own play, which proved problematic for us. 

The play is directed at a filmic lively pace by Richard Eyre with sumptuous design and costumes by Tim Hatley.  Russell Beale holds the play together as best as he can, but  it did feel like a skate through heterogenous elements of several plays and then some alternative comedy yoked self-consciously together rather than an organic whole.  

Perhaps there's a clue in the mention of Laurence Sterne's shaggy dog story Tristam Shandy but the play lost its focus for TLT and her sidekick.   The night time search after Foote's death for his amputated leg among the pickled relicts of medical student curiosities never fulfilled its initial promise of concentrating on Foote, the man exchanging the law for the stage yet embroiled in a complex web of interests including his own.  

Nevertheless TLT did catch some more thought provoking strands such as Miss Chudleigh, a pleasingly cast Sophie Bleasdale stepped fresh out of a Gainsborough portrait.  First an ingenue actress and then a cackling villainess - at least as filtered through Foote's viewpoint as we never hear her side of the story. But such possible complexities never reach an apex and are easily missed. 

So an intriguing story and although there are glimpses of something darker drawing modern parallels, the play pulls in too many directions despite the best efforts of actors, including a distinctive performance by the playwright himself, director and crew. An amber light.