The Hairy Ape

There seems to have been something of a resurgence in Eugene O’Neill’s work recently, with several productions of his plays all over London. His 1922 play The Hairy Ape, hugely popular at the time of its premiere, is currently showing at the Old Vic.

The play stars Bertie Carvel as protagonist Yank, a stoker on a transatlantic liner whose confidence in his role in the new world of machines is displaced when a rich young girl displays horror on coming face to face with him, dismissing him as “a filthy beast”. Seeking revenge, Yank heads out into the world but finds himself rejected by everyone he encounters, from socialites to socialists.

Carvel gives a strong performance and his Yank is believable and sympathetic. In general I found the supporting cast good, although the young rich girl horrified by Yank is exceptionally irritating (possibly intentional) and a lot of the time, I found the strong accents difficult to decipher. However, the play itself is quite different from other works by O’Neill and I found it tricky to appreciate. Richard Jones’s production emphasises the expressionist nature of the drama, but I didn’t think the stripped-back set fitted very well in the Old Vic, and some of the directorial choices – like the faceless Fifth Avenue rich folks Yank confronts, all wearing masks – left me cold.

One scene I did think worked well was the final scene, in which Yank confronts a gorilla at the zoo, finding – he thinks – a kindred spirit. Naturally enough, the gorilla is an actor in costume, and this scene could easily have been ridiculous or pantomimish – however this was not the case; it was very well done, even moving.

Overall, I won’t class The Hairy Ape as one of my favourite O’Neill plays, but I’m glad I made the effort to see it.



The second production in the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season sees Euripides’ Bakkhai performed in a new version by Anne Carson, directed by James Macdonald. With a cast of three plus a chorus, it aims to replicate the original structure of the drama, against a plain but effective, unobtrusively modern backdrop.

Ben Wishaw stars as Dionysus, the demigod who objects when he feels the citizens of Thebes are not worshipping him enough. With malignant glee he plans the downfall of the uptight Pentheus, the besuited leader of the city. Tricking him with a plan to infiltrate Dionysus’ female worshippers, who have fled to the hills beyond Thebes, he lures him to his death.

Wishaw is superb, commanding the stage as Dionysus and appealing to the audience with charisma and a winning manner. Carvel is also excellent as Pentheus, an outwardly affable politician whose authoritarian stance leads to a distrust of the reckless abandon Dionysus stands for.

Kevin Harvey is an actor I hadn’t come across before, but I was impressed with his performances in a number of very different roles. In fact, all of the actors play varied roles in this piece, and I got the impression that Wishaw, rather than simply playing a number of different roles, was playing Dionysus playing different roles. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it gave his character an omniscient quality, and added another dimension to the play. For instance, there was a moment when Cadmus was trying to persuade Pentheus that he should be pragmatic about Dionysus and say that he believes in him even if he doesn’t, for the sake of keeping the peace. And Wishaw’s Tiresias, standing to one side, seemed to be listening rather thoughtfully, as if he was actually Dionysus all along and noticing that Cadmus’ belief in him wasn’t quite as sincere as he had thought.

The chorus are a memorable part of this production: they are obviously talented and well rehearsed, and are an extremely strong ensemble. However, I thought that they had too much stage time, which slowed down the action somewhat, and their presence did get a little repetitive after a while. In general, though, I thought that this was an incredibly strong play and a worthy successor to the Oresteia.