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.