Here's a dirty confession for a theatre fan: until recently I'd never seen a Eugene O'Neill play.
I know right? I'm awful.
Fear not though. Thanks to The Old Vic's The Hairy Ape I have now remedied that situation and remedied it in some style.
The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, a stoker on cruise liners, whose unshakable belief in his own self worth and place in society is destroyed when some rich bitch daughter of a steel millionaire calls him a filthy beast. His attempts to get his revenge on her and her whole social class are repeatedly thwarted until, broken, he seeks solace with a literal ape at the zoo. Hilarity does very much not ensue.
At this point I want to give a bit of a health warning for the rest of this piece: I have absolutely zero chill about this production. It’s amazing, I love it and everyone in the world should see it. So if you’re short on time, stop reading and go book tickets immediately. The other thing I should probably say is that, for the above stated reasons, I saw it twice and this review is my collected thoughts (‘incoherent fangirl ramblings’ might be more accurate) on both performances.
The major drain on my chill here is Bertie Carvel whose central performance - and this is basically a one man show - as Yank is just phenomenal. The fact that, as discussed in a previous post, I very much have A Thing about Bertie Carvel notwithstanding the combination of brute physicality, violence, bravado and vulnerability he manages to pull off is genuinely astonishing. It’s a pretty boring observation to make at this point of his career, but fuck me is that guy versatile. It’s very hard for my tiny brain to compute that lumbering, angry, seemingly 7 foot tall (how do you act taller? how does that even work?) is deranged, broken Agave is tender, slightly nuts Jonathan Strange etc etc etc. And that’s amazing if you stop and think about it for even the briefest of moments.
In this performance it’s first of all the physical transformation that’s strikingly impressive. Apart from somehow adding a foot to his height, the power Carvel's Yank has is frightening wherever you're sat. His gait, his stance, his movements are all slightly simian and all convey such pent up anger that you sort of want to leave the theatre because clearly bad shit is going to happen and this guy is going to be at the centre of it. (Also, aesthetically, WOW. Any semblance of my remaining chill was powerfully lost the second his shirt came off.) What’s less obvious but more impressive though is how, behind all of that, there’s an instant and heartbreaking vulnerability. Even though you sort of know where this play is heading, you root for Yank so hard and it’s because Carvel’s performance let’s you into this guy’s head to an extent that I doubt many other actors could manage. The scene where he’s rejected from the trade union he tries to join just broke my heart and the last scene (no spoilers) gave me such a physical reaction that I could feel my heart beating almost out of my chest both times I saw it. I don't remember reacting that way to any other performance before.
With this masterful central performance dominating the stage for basically the whole evening - the one scene that Yank isn’t in felt boring by comparison - there’s not much for the rest of the cast to do but they all do it well. Steffan Rhodri is particularly enjoyable as a nostalgic Irish drunk whose romanticism Yank can’t stand (and also delivers the play’s few funny lines, “I’m never too drunk to sing” being a favourite) and Phil Hill gives an amazingly charismatic performance as the ape, one that gives Andy Serkis and his Hollywood mo-cap magic a run for its money for sure. And the guys who get naked in the shower scene are a very welcome addition. Just saying.
The production looks stunning too, very modern in its black and yellow minimalism. The yellow storage container that serves as almost all the sets in various guises is such a clever, claustrophobic device and, more basically, it just looks quite frightening. One of the few scenes that lets the action out of the box and puts it into Fifth Avenue is also really effective and really fucking creepy, especially when the anonymous, masked posh people start doing an almost musicless, twitchy charleston. And thrusting Yank into the middle of this weirdness only makes it weirder still.
Now, there was a criticism in some of the proper grown up reviews that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half hour or so, is difficult to make out and I think that is a valid point. Even on second viewing (/hearing) it took me a while to get my ear in and be able to fully understand the thick New York accents everyone uses and indeed are actually written into the play text. But then I have the same problem with people from Newcastle when I’ve had a few drinks and have never found it impairs my ability to enjoy their company. And so it is with this play; much like drinking with a Geordie or watching a Shakespeare you’re unfamiliar with, you may not pick up absolutely every word but neither do you for one moment lose the sense of what’s going on.
So, yeah, in summary see this show, see it now and see it repeatedly. And also go say hey to Bertie Carvel at the stage door because as well as being sickeningly talented he is also sickenkngly lovely, adorable human being. I sort of want to hate him but am physically and psychologically incapable of doing so.
The Hairy Ape plays at The Old Vic until November 21st. Get your skates on.