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.

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