Theatre Review – Bertie Carvel is The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic

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Matthew Warchus’s tenure at the Old Vic continues with this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic 1922 play, in which one man struggles to find his place in a society driven by wealth and status. A story focusing on the topic of class and individual identity is always going to resonate no matter when it is staged, with the play’s central character representing all those frustrated by the injustices they see in the world around them and this was certainly a production that left me with food for thought afterwards.

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The Hairy Ape of the piece is “Yank”, a labourer working as a stoker on a transatlantic ship. He is the toughest, strongest and most committed of the men below decks and revels in his place as ruler of the roost. However, his sense of position in the world is shaken when the daughter of the cruise line’s owner comes down to the bowels of the ship to see how the other half live. This privileged (and quite offensive) young woman is horrified by Yank’s appearance, calling him a “filthy beast”. Filled with rage and frustration as to the prejudices and attitudes of those who deem themselves to be better than him, he spends the rest of the play searching the streets of New York for somewhere he belongs, growing wilder the further he roams.

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Yank (Bertie Carvel) encounters the generic upper class of New York

I found the play to be quite a tough one to watch, as despite its short running time (90 minutes, no interval), I felt it lost some of its pace following the opening scenes on board ship, with later scenes seeming to drag a little. This initial scenes on the ship are very cleverly staged by director Richard Jones, as we see the stokers below decks in one long rectangular box, mirroring a cage at the zoo, complete with bars on the ceiling to swing off and on the door. Aletta Collins’s choreography here is also excellently effective in evoking the feeling of movement on board a ship at sea. I also loved the choice to have the upper class society of New York as faceless people, suggesting they are all generic, with no individual identities. It also means the audience focus stays with Yank.

The biggest asset of this production is indeed its lead actor Bertie Carvel. Almost unrecognizable with shaven head, bulked up frame and a fantastic (well in my view anyway) American accent; he gives a truly superb performance as Yank. This is his journey and he commands your attention in every moment, as you watch him shift from a man filled with confidence in himself and his abilities, to someone adrift and becoming more and more frustrated by the world around him. Carvel puts so much in to his performance, vocally and physically, right down to the most subtle of movements. Watching how he walks and sits, slightly hunched, hands on thighs, gives a nod to the ape of the title from the very first scene, providing a wonderful sense of connection once the play reaches its final moments.

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Steffan Rhodri (Paddy) and Yank’s fellow stokers

The rest of the cast provide strong support to Carvel, particularly Steffan Rhodri as fellow Irish stoker Paddy. Stewart Laing’s set is kept to the bare essentials, which sometimes looks a little odd and adrift on the large Old Vic stage (back in traditional proscenium configuration after the recent seasons in the round), but this also ensures that the focus remains always on Yank.

This won’t be a production that appeals to everyone and I can’t say I found it a hugely enjoyable experience. It is quite heavy material and I did find the pace of some scenes slow, particularly the later scenes. However, it’s worth buying a ticket for Bertie Carvel’s tour de force performance, which is impressive and will last long in your memory after you leave the theatre.

The Hairy Ape runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 21st November 2015. For more information and ticket availability, visit the website here.

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