I was in two minds whether to see the new production of Eugene O'Neill's THE HAIRY APE. The Old Vic for some reason always seems to be more expensive than most but Matthew Warchus' tenure as Artistic Director has kicked off with a new initiative with half the preview seats being available for £10 each - so I went!
Of course one must always allow that if it's still in preview then the actors are still feeling their way into the production before an audience. But a paying audience is still a paying audience...
Eugene O'Neill's play was written two years after THE EMPEROR JONES and both told a non-naturalistic, nightmarish story of an egotistical man, the self-made king of his world, brought down by hubris. Although only Jones was written for a black performer, iconic black actor Paul Robeson had a huge success playing both the roles on the London stage.
In this production, Bertie Carvel is 'Yank', the bull-headed 'leader' of the stokers aboard a transatlantic liner, whose brooding intensity keeps his fellow multi-national workers in check. His brutalist life comes crashing down when the spoilt daughter of a steel magnet ridicules him in front of the co-workers by calling him a filthy beast.
This sets Yank on a tailspin through New York, he starts a fight but is beaten by the police and thrown in jail where he learns of the Wobblies, a Communist group striving for the overthrow of Capitalism. When he is released he seeks them out but they too turn on him when they mistake his eagerness for him being a spy. Rejected by all levels of society and with his ship long since sailed, Yank finds himself in front of an ape's cage at the Zoo...
The annoying thing was that underneath Richard Jones' pretentious production values, you could catch glimpses of what has fascinated directors about this play down the years - the stripped-down tale of an archetypal brute reduced to staring his destruction in the face - but Jones' distancing post-modernist production makes it difficult to engage with it.
It is all the usual shtick from this most annoying of directors, who imposes his design-led style on everything so that he presents you with productions where you just sit and watch, they are productions that don't reach out to the audience - they might as well play it with the safety curtain down.
It seems to me that Bertie Carvel, after gaining success playing the outrageous Miss Trunchbull in the RSC musical MATILDA, is accepting every miserable job that comes along to distance him from that performance. After his role earlier this year in the Almeida's production of BAKKAI as the doomed King Penthius he follows it up here with the surly Yank who comes to a crushing end. Bertie - lighten up for fucks sake!
The American accents on display here are shockingly bad too, for a while I really couldn't get where Yank was from - THAT was an American accent?? In a cast of 15 not one, apart from Carvel, deliver a performance in any way memorable. That's a fib actually, Rosie Sheedy as the spoilt little madam delivers a performance that makes you wish she wanders into the ape cage.
At no point did you feel any sense of menace during Yank's downward spiral as the situations are designed by Stewart Laing with no nightmare quality at all but in a half-arsed post modernist way. I did like Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting however.
To say I was disappointed by this production is an understatement but as I said, underneath it all, I could see O'Neill's play still exerting a spell.